Joyland

Toronto |

Children of the Corn

by Nadia Bozak

edited by Kathryn Mockler

There’s a photo in the Saturday paper Dad wants Shell to think about. It is really simple: a man’s hand—giant and white—is holding out a black kid’s teeny tiny hand so all the world can see.

“Dad, is it a girl’s hand or a boy’s?”

Dad says, “Does that matter?” and goes back to the Sports.

Really, it could be a doll’s hand, or an Egyptian mummy’s. It is that wrinkled. The nails need a clip. And the wrist, draped over the man’s lined palm, is no thicker than one of the rubbery carrots rolling around in the bottom of the crisper. It must be hot there. The contrast between the black and the white so sharp, it’s as if cut with the X-Acto Dad uses on boxes.    

Famine worsens in war-ravaged Karamoja district of Uganda. 

Dad helps Shell pronounce the caption. Uganda, he says, is in Africa. The white man must feel like he is God right then—he could crush that shrunken hand like a snail shell. And Dad with beads of coffee in his moustache, he will have felt like God when he first saw the picture even if he doesn’t believe in God. Shell doesn’t know if the heaviness in her chest is for the starving child in Africa or for the man holding the child’s hand. Or is it for herself because she’s made an inside promise to never forget that picture?

Shell and Tori turn their t-shirts inside out and write “Feed Uganda” on them with Tori’s sparkly pens. But then Tori can’t wear hers. Blair, Tori’s mum’s boyfriend, makes Tori  change saying starving Africans should just eat their cows instead of worshipping them. So Shell’s house becomes the “Feed Uganda” headquarters. Too bad since Mum only allows sheets of fruit leather for snacks while at Tori’s they get Superman cookies with centers of marshmallow and raspberry jam or else a whole box of Ritz crackers they sandwich with that plastic cheese the color of life jackets. They make campaign posters at Shell’s desk and with Mum’s help plan for a charity lemonade stand where people can also donate canned goods to send over to—they count the syllables on their fingers: Kar-a-mo-ja-U-gand-a. Imagine if they could get enough to hire a plane and bring the Ugandans to live here, in Donald? There’s lots of room in Dover Park for tents. By the wintertime, the Ugandans could have their own places like the Cambodian people in the pink house behind Pinecrest  Public School where  the soccer balls always land. Any new photos of the famine in Dad’s paper, Shell clips and tucks into a file folder. She and Tori spread out the pictures at the start of their meetings. All the kids have such big balding heads but no picture beats the one of the hands. They close their eyes and pray for that tiny child who Dad says might very well be dead of hunger by now.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Right here in Donald, there’s enough food factories to feed the world. Even Dad agrees with that. Over in the east end you’ve got the Kellogg’s factory, plus McCormick’s cookies, and Club House—that’s for spices. Cuddy’s Chicken is out that way too. And what about the O-Pee-Chee candy factory where Fun Dips and bubblegum trading cards come from? A kid whose dad works at O-Pee-Chee’s brings broken pieces of trading card gum to school in a sandwich baggie. He says the sweet white powder coating the gum keeps it from sticking to the cards. The flavor lasts about three chews before becoming wax, but when the kid pulls out one of those baggies, the whole schoolyard gathers around him like they’re chickens and he’s a farmer throwing seeds.

Dad saves trips to East Donald Lumber for times when Shell can go. The Shepherd guarding the stacks of two-by-fours has no vocal chords so can’t bark and is about the only dog she likes. Also Dad knows Shell also loves the factory smells. Even in winter he lets Shell keep the window down, sniffing as cinnamon cookies gives way to rich chili powder, then to toasty cereal, and then the sharp ammonia Cuddy’s uses to clean the dead chickens hits the back of her throat. Finally comes the sugary pink tide of O-Pee-Chee: that smell’s the brightest and best. McInnis Brewery is in Donald too, but it’s right on the edge of downtown. The prevailing wind blows the yeasty hops as far southwest as their house on Cashel Street where on really bad days Tori and Shell move inside to play. And though McInnis smells a bit like warm puke, it is also not unlike Kellogg’s. Dad says that’s because both beer and Corn Flakes come from cereals. But that doesn’t mean you can have beer for breakfast—ha ha.

Though Mum sometimes hides butterscotch Lifesavers and Coffee Crisps in her purse, she and Dad and Shell aren’t supposed to eat food from factories. Their food comes from the backyard garden, the co-op store where Mum puts in a Saturday shift, and from Schwartz the Mennonite farmer who delivers barrels of apple cider and whole sides of meat which Dad and Kremski grind up into sausage right on the dining-room table and then smoke in the tin shack out back. Once when Kremski was feeding pork into the sausage grinder—the meat comes out like Play-doh hair—he found the very bullet Schwartz used to kill the pig. Kremski let Shell keep the bullet. He said it was proof of where the pig came from. You can’t say that about the stuff Value Mart packs up on squeaky foam trays. Kremski grew up on Soviet sausages which are full of nuclear chemicals as bad for you as the Drum cigarettes he smokes on the porch but which he tells Shell are okay since he rolls them himself.

“I’m sick of Uganda,” Tori says. She’s in her back yard uncoiling a pile of dirty hose. “I think I quit.” Tori fills her wading pool and then Shell rocks herself on the tire swing while Tori pretends to swim, but she’s just splashing so Shell goes home. Dad’s shoes are gone from the mat by the back door. She drinks from the milk carton in the fridge, both hands because it’s full. The washer thumps in the basement. There are two big bottles of tonic water standing between Dad’s splattered coffee pot and the antique toaster that only cooks one side of the bread. Mum has to go to Value Mart for the tonic because the co-op only has seltzer and Dad says it ruins his gin. And there’s whipping cream in a purple carton which wasn’t there at breakfast. Shell puts back the milk. On top of the fridge, next to the empty Kleenex, is a box of real, live Kellogg’s Corn Flakes.   

Shell’s never tasted Corn Flakes. But she knows that bird from a million miles away: green breast, white eye, red comb and teardrop wattle, a sharp yellow beak. Primary colors, like primary school. Corn Flakes are what other kids eat. In the dentist’s shiny magazines mums in makeup smile as they coat drumsticks with crumbled Corn Flakes and bake them up crisp or else they stir Corn Flakes, peanuts, and hot marshmallows together and cut that into squares. The perfect blocks of them are then wrapped in cling-film which Mum says leaks stuff that gives you cancer. Tori eats the sugar-coated kind of Corn Flakes, the tiger kind, which are not Corn Flakes at all. Rather they are Frosted Flakes, also made by Kellogg’s right here in Donald.  

No matter how Shell’s begged Mum, their breakfast is never from a Kellogg’s box. School mornings Mum slow-cooks porridge with all the seeds in it. On weekends Dad does eggs and bacon, or Mum pours dark buckwheat batter into the heavy black waffle iron. They top the thick, cakey waffles with syrup Dad and Shell tapped at a sugar bush.

“Hand over that filthy shirt,” Mum says. She’s got a basket of laundry at her hip and her hair’s up in a red camping bandana.

Shell crosses her arms over the sparkled Uganda letters.

“Come on, Shell. People will think we don’t own a bar of soap.”

The washer bangs to a stop, giving up a final groan. Shell squeezes Mum’s elbow so hard Mum cries out. “What?”

“Those,” Shell whispers, pointing to the Corn Flakes rooster crowing on top of the fridge. Like Kookaburra in the old gum tree, Merry, merry king of Kellogg’s he. “What are we doing with store-bought cereal in this house?”

“Oh,” Mum says, before disappearing into the basement. “They’re for Bouvier. He’s coming to visit.”

 

*

 

One time when Dad and Bouvier were sharing a place  during art school, Dad found Bouvier fast asleep in the shower. He was slumped against the tiles, the water gone ice cold. Bouvier is always falling asleep in Dad’s stories—while soldering iron, eating spaghetti dinner, driving his ’67 Chevy pickup in prairie January with no heat. Either that or he is getting hurt. Like when he was changing a tire and the jack collapsed. The pickup rolled right over his foot. He screamed for his neighbor to come help, but the old guy was deaf and just kept on  weeding. And all that was before Bouvier moved to St John’s and became an official Newfie, which is the really funny part, Dad says. Or not funny, the word is “iron” something. Now after ten whole years of unanswered Christmas cards Bouvier calls. He’s driving from Saskatchewan back to St. John’s and though Donald is out of his way by a whole day at least, he’s coming to stay. And because back in art school Bouvier lived for a whole year on canned beer and Corn Flakes Dad thought it would be funny to add them to Mum’s shopping list.

Will one box of Corn Flakes be enough?

Will I get to eat some too?

Will Dad?

If there’s leftovers will you get some marshmallows to make squares? 

Can we open them now?

Just one golden flake?  

Mum gets the vacuum cleaner out right after the next morning’s porridge. She washes the kitchen floor down on her knees and wipes fingerprints from the cupboards. Along with tonic and gin, there are two six-packs of Tuborg in the cold room. Mum says Bouvier will need more than twelve Tuborg if he’s going to fall asleep in the shower again. Dad samples a garlicky Greek olive that go perfect with beer.“Hey, that’s not fair.” For supper Dad will make his famous fettuccini with fresh pesto from the backyard basil. One of his good stoneware ashtrays is out on the coffee table in the living room and a selection of records leans up against the turntable: George Jones, Ry Cooder, and the Miles Davis record that has a cartoon like Fat Albert on the cover even though it is not for kids.      

After Shell cleans her room and helps Mum fold laundry, she can raise funds for Uganda. She puts on her clean Feed Uganda shirt. Though the “U” has melted into an “O” Mum says it looks fine and she’s not to ruin another t-shirt no matter how starving the children.  

With a Tupperware jug of lemonade and stack of plastic cups, Shell goes out to the sidewalk where Dad has set out a card table and chair.

“You’re also raising awareness, Shell,” he says. “Remember that. It is just as important.”

Last night at the dining room table while Mum hemmed Shell’s corduroys, Shell made a campaign sign. First she glued the photo of the hands in the middle of a piece of cardboard. Then she wrote above it in marker: “Won’t you please lend a hand?” Under that she copied some facts about the famine from a Time magazine she got at the library.     

Anemia is now the main cause of death for the victims who are overwhelmingly children. It is clamming more lives than outright starvation. The anemia so weakens the body, feeding is impossible. The famine in the Karamoja region and widesspread political anarchy are making Uganda one of the most unstable countrys in Africa. Elections are planned for September 30th of this year. 

Shell sits alone in the driveway. Like October leaves, lemonade pulp drifts to the bottom of the jug. She wishes she could be sick of Uganda and go to Dover Park pool like Tori did about an hour ago—while Tori had waved at Shell with her gas station beach towel, Blair tooted the horn. Likely they will stop at Goldstein’s for a soft ice cream on the way home. Mum comes out and coats Shell in suntan lotion and makes her put on a hat. A few adults on bikes stop. They read Shell’s t-shirt, gulping down lemonade which they say needs more sugar.  

 “Oganda?” They’ve never heard of the place. One guy with a ponytail and damp cowboy shirt says it’s just imaginary. “The kid’s making it up.” But then they read the facts on the poster. “Oh, right, Uganda.” They say the picture of the two hands makes them think.

Though the lemonade only costs a quarter per cup, each of them puts a two-dollar bill in the jar Mum usually ferments the kefir in. Then a bunch of kids come by, bathing suits still wet from Dover Park. The kids go to the Catholic school about five blocks from Pinecrest. Shell thinks it is because of being Catholic that they spend such a long time looking at the photo of the hands. One boy who is tanned very dark with long eyelashes and a bright yellow booger reads the information to his friends. When he looks up and Shell sees the booger straight on it makes her gag. He says he has no money but he and his friends will come back with canned goods. What do Ugandans like to eat? Shell remembers that Time magazine talked about aid workers giving out cereals and grains, like rice and maize, which she knows is corn because in Social Studies they learned how the Native Indians right around Donald used to grow it. She tells the Catholic kids to bring rice, corn, cereals. Oh, and also Chef Boyardee ravioli. That way Shell can keep it in her room and eat the slippery pasta pouches in secret.  

Shell’s about to drink the last cup of lemonade and go get her bathing suit when Kremski squeaks up on his ten-speed. He squints against the blue wafting up from the cigarette clamped between his teeth. Is Dad around because he owes Kremski some money. Kremski’s right jeans’ leg is rolled to the knee. His calf is veiny and so thin compared to the size of his sneakers.  

“Uganda, huh?” Kremski digs two quarters from his pocket. But before he drops them into the kefir jar he wants to know what Shell’s going to do with the money. When Shell can’t answer, Kremski shakes his head and says that’s the most important question about foreign aid and one people fail to ask. Why don’t the goddamn Americans intervene in a real crisis instead of secretly invading Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador? He says the starving Ugandans will never see any of this so-called aid money. It’s all for show.

“You ask your dad what corruption means,” he says, wiping spit from his lips. He deposits his money but says Shell can keep her refreshments, he doesn’t like lemonade.

Shell’s cheeks get hot as sunburn. She watches Kremski ride away, chicken leg flexing its sinew, and for the first time feels hate for him and if he wasn’t Kremski she’d run after him and throw his quarters at his bald spot. Instead, she plucks them from the kefir jar and drops them, along with Kremski’s pocket lint, down the sewer grate. Then she packs up her stand.  She watches from the living room window, but the Catholic kids never come with their ravioli cans.

Dad is kneading pasta dough. He’s good at it because of all his work with clay. Though Mum has her doubts, Dad bets Shell a Goldstein’s soft-serve that Bouvier will show up for dinner tonight like he said he would. Outside on the porch, Shell counts the cars, trying to guess which one will be Bouvier’s.

Dad comes out with a Tuborg and a glass. Shell says she’s not sure what to do with the seven dollars and twenty-five cents she raised for Uganda. And what does corruption mean because Kremski came by and called her that. Dad says being from the Soviet Union Kremski’s nature is to be skeptical. For example, if Shell kept the seven dollars and twenty-five cents for herself, that would be corrupt.

“Or if I went and threw it all down the sewer drain? Is that corrupt?”

Dad furrows his brow. “That doesn’t make sense, Shell. Why would you do that?” Dad says. Then he adds that if she waits for Halloween she can put the money in her UNICEF box.

“But maybe by that time the famine will be over?”

Dad doesn’t think so.

Shell asks Dad what he owes Kremski money for.

“The mortgage,” Dad tells her.

Before she can ask what a mortgage is Tori comes by on her training wheels. She wants Shell to come take turns.

“Can’t. We’re waiting for Bouvier.” 

“Booby who?”

“Boo-vee-eh.”

Tori says she’ll ride up the street to look. She comes back and asks if Boo-boo will be in a taxi. There’s one parked up on Maurice Street. When Dad shakes his head Tori pedals off, making a circle in the driveway.  

Dad has another beer. Mum brings out a bowl of peanuts. Cashel Street gets busy with traffic cutting through to avoid some construction but no one pulls up in front of the house. After a while, the air fills with the smell of lighter fluid and charcoal and then the smoky-sweet of someone’s hamburgers.

When the streetlights come on, Mum says they’ve waited long enough. It’s time to go in for supper.

 

*

 

The Corn Flakes box gets so dusty Mum wipes it down with a damp dish towel. Shell stops asking where’s Bouvier. Instead she just wants to know why they can’t eat the Corn Flakes since they’re already bought and with children starving it’s a waste. “Are Corn Flakes expensive, is that why we can’t eat them?”

“No, it is because they are cheap,” Dad says. “And that they are American.” 

When Shell says, no, they are made right here in Donald, Dad tells her Kellogg’s is just one example of how America is taking over the world. “Imperialism,” is the word for it. Same goes for McDonald’s, Burger King, and Bruce Springsteen.

“And Miles Davis?” says Shell because she hates that guy’s shrill trumpet. “Why’s he better than The Boss?”

Dad sends Shell to her room for that, and when she’s allowed to come down for supper, the cereal box is gone from the fridge. Dad says the Corn Flakes are on their way to Uganda. Shell owes him the seven dollars and twenty-five cents in the kefir jar for postage.

Really the Corn Flakes are on the high shelf in the broom closet. The green and yellow and red bird peaks out from behind the Javex, Ajax, and packets of bright colored sponges. Shell prays for Bouvier so she can taste Kellogg’s for real, but by the time Miss Moss introduces the “Countries in Need” unit of Social Studies, Bouvier is nine weeks late. For the main project, everyone in the class has to pick a country and make a report. Instead of reading encyclopedias when they go downstairs to the library, Shell finds a corner and reads Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret for the tenth time. The very next week, she hands in the stuff she has on Uganda and the whole class says she cheated.

How’d she do it so fast?

Look, how perfect it is.

She couldn’t have done it herself.

That picture’s a fake. Who ever saw a hand that small?

I bet it’s the hand of a little monkey.

No, her dad did it–they make all that weird stuff behind their house.

Shell says she had her own fund-raising campaign in the summertime. She has her T-shirt and the seven dollars and twenty-five cents still in the kefir jar to prove it. That shuts them up. But then Miss Moss says handing in work you’ve already done is a kind of cheating.

“Like corruption?”

Miss Moss tilts her head and thinks. To be fair to everyone in the class, Shell will have to do her “Country-in-Need” assignment over again.

But Uganda’s the only country in need Shell knows. 

“How about another place in Africa, Shell, if that’s what interests you? They are all in need, really. Like, you know, Biafra, for example? Or Ethiopia? There’s famines there sometimes.”  Oh, and don’t forget that the work is due tomorrow. No exceptions.

Shell was supposed to have gone to bed an hour ago. Dad’s out with Kremski and Mum is mixing clay in the back. The walnut’s lost its leaves so Shell can see right into the studio from Mum and Dad’s bed. Mum’s got the red bandana on, her plaid shirt rolled to the elbow, and heavy glasses slip down her nose. The three-quarter moon is a bit like skim milk. Outside air cools the room though Dad put the storm windows on a few weeks back.  

By the low light coming in from the hall, Shell scans the books on Mum’s shelf. None are about a country in need. There’s lots of books on ancient civilizations, though, as well as a whole row on painters. She pulls a shiny spine with bright yellow letters: Gauguin’s Tahiti.

The house is silent and dark. She finds her paper scissors and spreads the book on her desk. The pictures are of paintings, thick and glossy and filled with color. The ladies in them don’t look very hungry, but at least they are brown and their dresses could be towels and no one’s got shoes. The lettering in the book is too small and the words are too long so Shell just makes up her own data for the report part of her project. Like how there’s no men in any pictures of Tahiti because they all died in a war and the island is so far away hardly any tourists go there. The people eat nuts and berries, just like birds, and then they eat the birds too. Miss Moss asked for pictures of natives of the country. Shell goes slow as she snips out a painting of three naked girls on a beach, which she then glues onto a piece of cardboard. She also cuts out a map, which fits alongside. But she makes it all a bit crooked so no one will say she’s corrupt.

Shell puts the book back on the shelf. Out back, Mum hunches over her potter’s wheel, tongue between her teeth, rolling her shoulders as her fingers coax the wet clay into a wide, squat bowl. Downstairs, in the kitchen, it still smells of the sausages Mum baked for supper. Apart from the brightness of the moon, the only light comes from the dim bulb over the stove, and there is nothing to hear but the fridge. With the collapsible stool Mum keeps beside the stove, Shell climbs up and reaches into the broom closet. She tugs on the Corn Flakes box, knocking the sponges to the floor. The box should be heavy, but instead it’s like air. The top flap is not only already unsealed, it is crinkled from being opened so much. Inside there’s a jammed up bag with only two handfuls of cereal in the bottom.

Mum left just enough Kellogg’s Corn Flakes to fill a breakfast bowl. Shell tops the cereal with milk and maple syrup. Usually Shell only ever eats at her desk if she is grounded. She keeps her lamp on low. The fine golden silt really does taste like corn, slightly sweet and earthy, and the smell is just like in east-end Donald. The girls in the painting she cut from Mum’s book have ruby flowers behind their ears. They look out at what must be the coming and going of ocean tide and above them is a warm, buttery sun. Who needs schools, factories, or lemonade? Newspapers with pictures that make you sad and so you can’t stop thinking? Shell adds a bit to her data on Tahiti. “I think,” she writes to Miss Moss in soft 2B cursive, “it truly is better to be from a country-in-need because if you don’t know you’re in-need then you don’t have to worry about it.”

Shell licks the last soft crumbs of cereal from her spoon. Maybe next year Bouvier will call up again and then never come.