It’s a surprise! Mom says. She’s driving. She has overpacked for a short trip. She keeps glancing in the rearview mirror. There Bud and I ride in the backseat, Bud’s just grown into his booster. I’m five, maybe six. Familiar landmarks out of town pass us by, the International Harvester where Dad worked, fast food and pawn shops, cocktail-lounged cinder block and glass brick and pocked faded Pabst Blue Ribbon signs. The post-industrial age recedes from my window, rubbed out of the road. Mom drives and familiar things disappear then replicate: the same flat Midwestern ribbon, the dirty yellows and greens and grays. Is Mom better this week? She’s humming along with George Jones on the radio. What does that tell you? In an hour or two we pass a city limits sign: Battle Creek, Michigan. A giant brick building with tall smokestacks approaches, no different than the International Harvester Dad worked at. They made tractors, Scouts. Our car shudders, then continues. I see us, just a second before it happens—years now after the fact—we’re parking, waiting for his shift to end. See him wave, emerging from every other building, see him multiplied in smaller foundries, tool and dies, small parts suppliers. See him here, where he isn’t.
Here instead, a tiger waves from a rock. Surprise! Mom says: We’re going on a tour. It looks different than the brochure, she says. We approach the blue doors. Inside the room smells like an excess of morning. Our paper hats are carefully adjusted with elastic bands. On the ground floor, steaming flakes pass along conveyors and drop away into the dark. We climb a circular stairway, with 360º views of the factory washing, milling, pressuring matter. The tour guide is dressed like a flight attendant. She tells us about harvesting and storehousing grain, the numbers of trucks, train routes, annual tonnage of cereal intake in average Americans. In memory she describes peristalsis, digestion, anxiety, mirror neurons, sleeplessness, longing. We descend into the basement and her hand extends to a statue of Snap, Crackle, and Pop, but she’s describing John Harvey Kellogg, chief medical officer at the Battle Creek Sanitarium like their doppelgänger. How he invented cereal originally for the insane. And with this I begin to see—though I’m only a child—that Mom has escaped into her own life: two children and the solitude of their production and distribution. In her eyes the look of an answer perpetually seconds away. Now the tour guide’s smile detaches from her face and flies around the lights as we stop in a bright room with round white tables and matching chairs. We sit at one of the little tables with bowls of milk and corn flakes. Mom says, Watch Bud, will you? And I watch her leave through a doorway. The dolor of blackbirds passes through me with a dark flapping chemistry. Bud stuffs his tiny mouth with corn flakes. He’s showing toddler signs of aging, the baldness reversing, his bonelessness growing into a limbed agency that will learn to drink and smoke and take pills and make questions nag the unanswerable. Looking for Dad I will find a space staring back I cannot touch. Snap, Crackle, and Pop wave from a corner. My appetite for this cereal grows voracious. Snap, Crackle, and Pop seem to say Happy Birthday! though anyone can see there are no birthdays here.
There’s Mom back with her Midwestern skew and neutral accent, smile waylaid and sincere. Her tally of losses, her good posture. Fun? she says and we nod, Fun.
Notes from Guest Reader Wendy J. Fox
I was drawn to ‘Double Blind’–in a pool of many excellent submissions–because of the immediacy of David Ryan’s writing. He brings readers into the scene right away, and personally I think that’s always important, but it’s even more important in flash where the writer does not have very many words to get to the heart of a story. It’s a great piece and I hope others enjoy it as much as I did.