Jane MacDonald

Home

Stories
Essays
On Writing
Biography
Favorite Links
Contact Me
Anthrax
                                                                                           2002 Jane MacDonald

by Jane MacDonald


All I'm trying to do is read the newspaper, okay? Nothing illegal or
immoral about that. Just sitting here overseeing breakfast and
reading Stanley Fish's article about post-modernism in the Times.

"Mom?"

"Yeah."

"Look at my cereal."

So I look at his cereal. "Uh huh. Eat it." Back to Stanley Fish? No
way.

"It's anthrax. I saw it on TV, and my cereal looks just like anthrax
bugs."

"It's just cereal, hon. They don't put anthrax in cereal boxes." I
look again. The kid's right. It looks like the anthrax germs they had
on TV. "It's shredded wheat. It always looks like that."

He looks at the stuff a while. "No. I won't eat it."

Now, this young man is surely the brightest child in his
kindergarten. He's already reading all kinds of stuff. He knows a
lot. He's a little confused in the logic department, being only five
and all, but he's not stupid.

"Look, Bobby. You ate cereal out of that same box yesterday, and you
didn't catch anything, right? They probably packed that box back in
July, before anybody ever heard of anthrax."

"No."

It's not considered to be good parenting if you take a handful of
the stuff and shove it down his little pink throat, so I keep my cool.

"We're in Wells, Maine, Bobby. Why would anybody want to poison
breakfast food in Wells, Maine? The President's family's place is up
the road in Kennebunkport, and they probably eat caviar for
breakfast, anyhow."

"What's caviar?"

"That's beside the point. Just eat your cereal. You have to get to
school."

My elder son, Richard, is ten. He's very helpful at all times. "Want
some peanut butter and jelly, Bobby?"

"No. I want a new bowl."

My husband surfaces. He's reading the business section. "Eat your
cereal, Bobby. We gotta get outta here."

I've never figured out why he thinks Bobby will take orders from
him, when the kid won't take orders from me. He has illusions, my
husband.

"Don't worry about it, Bill. You're on your way to Sanford,
remember? It'll take you half an hour, and you'd better get going."

"Okay." He puts down the newspaper, comes around and gives me a
kiss, and then picks up his cap and heads out the back door. At least
Bill knows how to take orders.

Richie gets up and minces over to the counter, as if he has
everything under control, and starts making a peanut butter sandwich.
It's about finished, and Bobby is waving a spoon around aimlessly,
going on about anthrax in some unknown tongue. Richie turns to me
with a big grin on his face. I know the look, which does not
reassure me.

"Mom, they said to report anything suspicious. Maybe you better call
nine-one-one."

"Richard, you are sucking for a bruise. But thank you for fixing
peanut butter for Bobby."

"I'll bring you the phone." He's still grinning. Kids have no idea
when to stop.

"I am not calling nine-one-one. You are both going to finish your
breakfasts, then you're going to school."

Bobby spills most of a glass of milk on the table. Richard finishes
his cereal. Bobby takes a bite out of the peanut butter sandwich and
smiles beatifically.

"School!" he shouts. I wipe up the milk with paper towels.

We roll off to school--two different schools--without further ado.
Richie is reading a comic book. Bobby is babbling about anthrax in
his cereal bowl. I am thanking God all the way that things are
relatively calm, and thinking in between about post-modernism, and
wondering why I can't quite remember who Stanley Fish is.

Back home, I'm standing there heating water for my tea, reading
about post-modernism in the folded-up newspaper, when the
phone rings.

"Hello?"

"Ms. Lapierre? Please come and pick up your son. We're evacuating
the school."

I'm alarmed.

"Why? What's going on?"

"All the kids are saying that Bobby ate anthrax for breakfast--he
says so, too--and we're taking no chances. We've already called the
HazMat people, and they ought to be here by the time you get here.
They'll tell you what to do. We're afraid all the kids have been
exposed, and it's just not wise to take chances."

"But--"

She's hung up. Jesus H. Christ!

I grab my purse and head out. By the time I get to the school cars
are lined up along the road, cops are all over the place, there's a
TV truck from Portland--how did they get here so soon?--and a fire
truck is blocking the drive. I see women running. I park the car and
saunter over toward the door. No point in hurrying--the machine is
grinding. I have trouble believing this. No, that's not true. I've
been watching the television, too. I believe it. I can't believe I'm
believing it.

The cop at the door blocks my way. It's one I don't know, from
Arundel, it says on his shoulder.

"Officer, I need to pick up my boy."

"What's your name?"

"Lapierre."

He looks at a list.

"Just wait here, please." He goes inside, and then comes right
back out.

"They've taken your son to the hospital in Alfred. For tests. I'd
get over there if I were you."

Oh, no. Now I run, back to the car. Off I go, fast. I get there in
fifteen minutes, park in the drive, run in the emergency door, right
past a fat cop who stands there looking surprised. I hear a loud wail
I'd know anywhere. The bastards are hurting my kid. I'll kill 'em.

I'm past the desk and headed for Bobby when a young doctor
grabs my arm.

"Hey! Wait a minute!"

"Let go of me," I say, rather loudly. "My son is in there."

"You must be Ms. Lapierre. Relax. He's okay. They're just doing the
test."

"They don't touch that kid unless I'm right there! Out of my way!"
Obviously, that's pretty silly, since they've touched the hell out of
the poor little guy already, but I jerk loose from the doctor and
push through the swinging door. There's Bobby, sitting on some kind
of bench, howling. He sees me.

"Mommy!" The poor baby. I grab him and hug him half to death.

"I'm here, kiddo, don't worry." I'm nuzzling at his hair when a
nurse comes over and taps me on the shoulder.

"Ms. Lapierre, please. Robert is fine. We're just testing him for
anthrax. It doesn't even hurt."

"Then why the hell is he yelling?" I glare at her. She's about
twelve, with a pony tail, and a fake sweet look on her face. I hang
on tight to Bobby.

"I think he wanted his mother," she says, still with that fake
smile. I consider killing her. Seems like a good idea.

"He hasn't got anthrax, you idiot. He just didn't want to eat his
breakfast." I hold tight to Bobby. These ghouls are not about to get
him back into their clutches. I really hate hospitals a lot.

"I'm sure the doctor can explain." She's wiped off the smile, and
looks maybe twenty-two now. And pissed.

The doctor comes in, a different one, this one old and wearing a
fatherly look. I glare at him, too.

"I can see why you'd be upset, Ms. Lapierre, but there's nothing to
worry about, really. When there's an anthrax threat, we have to test
people. It's a new policy. Ordinarily they wouldn't have brought your
son here without your permission, but it's an emergency."

"Well, the new policy sucks, mister, and I'm taking him right out of
here, right now."

"I'm afraid you can't quite yet, Ms. Lapierre, we have to follow the
rules." He doesn't look so fatherly now.

"Oh, yeah? Do you know the word lawsuit? There is no emergency
whatever, and you're holding my son under false pretenses. I'm outta
here." I start to turn and the cop from outside is standing in the
door. I decide to be reasonable. No, I decide to be what these idiots
think is reasonable. I've been being reasonable, already. I turn to
the doctor.

"Do you want to hear what started all this? Really, I think you
ought to know."

The doctor motions me to the bench where Bobby was when I came in.
He sits in a black swivel chair at the little desk I've just noticed.
Then I tell him the whole story, about the cereal, and everything.

"I believe every word you say, Ms. Lapierre. But people are
frightened, so some pretty unpleasant things happen." He doesn't look
a bit fatherly anymore; in fact, he doesn't even look official. He
just looks kind of pained. "We don't have any choice. The people at
the school panicked, obviously, so here we are. We can do the test.
You can take Bobby home, and we'll telephone you with the results.
That way everybody is happy, no more problems. The test will come
back negative, and everything will be just fine."

I consider. I don't really have any choice, do I?

"Okay, Doctor. Do what you have to do. But I'll stay with Bobby the
whole time, okay?'

"Of course. We want you to." He smiles. "Bobby will be a lot quieter."

We finally get home. I'm a nervous wreck. Bobby wants a peanut
butter sandwich, so I fix him one. He wants juice, but I tell him
it'll rot his teeth and they'll hurt and he'll look like a boogy man,
so he shuts up about that and drinks water. I guess that trip to the
hospital took some of the starch out of him, poor little kid. I sit
there and watch for a while, then I go back to the bedroom and get
out the pack of cigarettes I've had there for a year and a half.

I figure he'll go to sleep pretty soon, and I'll check the computer.
I expect they've already got a patch to keep anthrax from coming
through in my e-mail. But when do you think they'll start worrying
about smallpox? You know, right now I don't give a shit about
post-modernism.

(I wrote this in October, 2001, just as the anthrax scare was
getting underway. J.M.)