By Sarah Worrel
Sherry and I shucked sweet corn that filled a glass bowl atop the 1950s kitchenette table. When we were done, she got up to move the garbage can back and moved to the sink to wash her hands.
“Please, don’t go to work tomorrow. It’ll be Saturday. It can wait.”
I stood up. “Sherry.” I reached for her left hand with its princess-cut diamond ring, “we can’t afford for me to stay home.” I wondered if we should sell our wedding rings.
“RJ and I need you more than we need your steady paychecks.”
I twisted the onyx and platinum band around my own ring finger. “I promised to take care of you when we got married.”
RJ trotted in and got a glass of milk from the refrigerator. “Why are the blinds closed?”
I replied, “Your mom and I don’t want to advertise that our dinner consists of illegal corn.”
RJ gave me a peck on the cheek and said, “Okay, Mama. Can I help?”
“Go replace the burnt-out lightbulbs downstairs.”
“Got it!” He clomped downstairs.
I tried to avoid grocery shopping on Friday night. Sherry wrote a list of twenty-seven items before I left for work that morning. I couldn’t procrastinate any more. This particular Friday, the place was crawling with people. I arrived in the bread aisle. I couldn’t get my hands on a loaf of enriched white flour, off-brand bread at $7. Even the tags for $15 loaves of whole grain hung from empty shelves. I weaved past screaming children and pokey people to the dairy section. Our favorite brand of hormone-free milk had gone up to $20 per gallon.
We rode the elevator together that first morning, Larry and I.
His disk jockey-style voice asked, “How’s it going, Rickie?”
“Sherry didn’t want me to come in today. She’s afraid. How are things at your place?”
“No one but me to worry about until Craig moves in next month. My goldfish are fine, though.”
I pushed my wedding band against my engagement band and stared at my maroon peep-toe shoes. The elevator dinged, the door opened, and Larry sauntered toward his second-floor office to prepare for sales calls on Monday.
On my way to the water cooler that Saturday morning to fill up my insulated mug, I saw them as I gazed out the windows. According to their signs, they were parents demonstrating the frustration and fear they felt at not being able to feed their children. Across the street, food conglomerates were holding a conference inside the hotel. Someone from the press must have leaked the location of the meeting. Moms led children away as the crowd got angrier.
The ripe smell of my Honeycrisp apple called to me. I rinsed it in the sink and sank my teeth through the thin skin into the sweet flesh.
Later, I turned the office TV to local news. Live footage played of people crouching behind the check-in desk or peeking out from around overstuffed chairs. A protestor grabbed one of the landscaping rocks and threw it through the door. The middle-aged man in jeans and a red t-shirt got lost in the crowd as everyone joined in.
Larry knocked once and walked into my office. “Rickie? What is going on out there?”
“Hang on. I gotta call Sherry.”
I dialed home. “Sherry? I can’t breathe. Have you been watching the news? Turn on Channel 8. Yes, I’m taking my pills. They’re not helping.”
I rummaged through my purse. My bottle of anti-anxiety meds was running low.
Sherry, Larry, and I stared as the newscasters tried to make sense out of chaos. The broadcast showed glass covering worn-out concrete as protestors rushed the hotel. The anchor said, “Protestors entered the hotel and began looting. Some carried sacks of flour or similar bulk kitchen supplies, others had towels, TVs, or anything portable. So far there are unconfirmed reports of two injuries and one death. Representatives of the food conglomerates contacted by KCCI are refusing to comment regarding the meetings beyond saying their employees are safe.”
Footage rolled as more police arrived and set up haphazard roadblocks around the building. Protestors kept coming. No matter how many went inside, there were still plenty of them outside the building. The anchor’s voiceover confirmed that “Nothing like this has ever happened in Des Moines before. The Ames Riots at Iowa State in 2004 are the closest and most recent examples of public violence of this scale.” The first floor didn’t have many windows, so my office building wasn’t an opportune target.
“Sherry? I’ll call you tonight. I don’t feel safe leaving, so I’ll just camp out on the floor. Love you.” Even inside my office, the chanting was so loud that I couldn’t hear Sherry say goodbye. I opened the window. The protestors yelled “Down with Big Corn!” The chant devolved into pure noise after several minutes.
As the chants became more disorganized, the protestors turned on the cops. They surged to the cop car farthest from the barricade and overturned it. They swarmed on to the next. The police pulled out their batons and marched toward the protestors. One member of the mob took a rock to a cruiser’s window. Another protestor threw a Molotov cocktail at the car. Both ran.
A glass bottle shattered against the wall of the building.
A third protestor in a camouflage baseball cap grabbed a branch from one of the bare trees, wrapped a rum-soaked hotel towel around it, and lit it. He tossed the improvised torch into another police car and the upholstery flared up.
Then the flames in the first squad car reached the fuel tank. Daylight burned brighter. A woman with brown hair rolled around amid the debris from the looting, clutching her bloody shoulder. The smoke from both cars finally thickened and obscured the view on the north side of my office building.
I took stock after I couldn’t watch another person get trampled. Jenny’s desk had Jolly Ranchers. I had never seen Jenny without a piece of hard candy in her mouth. I’d bet her dentist looked forward to every visit. Fred had a package of snack cakes squirreled away. Rhonda’s supremely tidy desk was devoid of food. No one knew if Rhonda ever ate; her arms were skinnier than her elbows. She came in every weekday with a fat-free vanilla latte. Fortunately, Sally had left a stash of Fruit N’ Nut Bars from one of the warehouse stores. My gum ensured minty-fresh breath, but didn’t help with keeping up caloric intake.
I checked my email. The message from the pharmacy confused me. It informed me of my insurance company insisting I use another drug in the same class before it would authorize the latest one my doctor had prescribed. I was already on samples.
“Mill Creek Family Care, how may I help you?”
“Hi, this is Rickie Taylor. I need to speak to a nurse.”
“All the nurses are busy. Would you like to leave a voicemail?”
“No. There’s a problem with my medication.”
“This is Margie.”
I explained the situation.
“The doctor can’t prescribe anything else unless you come into the office.”
“Thanks for your help.” I hung up.
I ate the last frozen dinner, an Asian rice steamer, from the office refrigerator on day two. The savory scent of chicken tantalized me. When it was finally ready, my tongue and teeth relished the texture of the firm rice against the red peppers and crunchy water chestnuts.
Today is day eight. The granola bars have run out. My skirt’s starting to hang on my hips. At least there’s plenty of water, and the electricity’s still on.
According to the TV, the violence had quickly spread. They expected the president would call in the National Guard soon. I planned to hold the snack cakes sacrosanct until the Guard’s arrival.
Larry and I weren’t the only ones in the building who figured it was safer to wait out the mayhem, but I haven’t opened the door to the office since Brad the janitor came on day three.
Casual conversation was now a thing of the past. He was already on his knees when he opened his mouth. “Please, I’m so hungry.”
“I don’t have anything left, Brad. I’m sorry.”
“The Franklin and Kirk people wouldn’t help me, either.”
A muscle below his left eye twitched erratically, and I noticed bruising around his right eye. He started to move in toward me. I put my hand on his shoulder and escorted him out, Larry standing right behind me.
“Try the vending machines on the fourth floor,” Larry suggested.
“Right. Thanks,” Brad muttered as he walked to the elevator.
After Brad left, I shook. The fear had rushed adrenaline through my body, and my hands trembled. I hugged myself to stop feeling like my body was acting without me. Breathing took effort. I shoved my face into a brown paper bag and breathed.
Sherry managed our household like a pro. I wouldn’t have called her an extreme couponer, but she always kept extra staples on hand. We didn’t say much over the phone, to avoid scaring RJ, but from her last email I knew it had gotten worse for them both.
I’m so grateful Bill and Evelyn helped me board up the house before the looting spread. Someone was prying at the boards on the front door at 3am last night. He got down the first two-by-four, but then Bill’s dogs started barking. The guy ran toward Lower Beaver Road.
RJ complains about eating cold food all the time. He whimpers in his sleep.
We’re quiet and keep the lights off. We’re only using candles in the bathroom after we’ve shut the doors. I hated not having windows in the bathroom, but now I’m glad.
I don’t turn on the TV anymore. The violence on the news reminds me of the footage from 9/11, when they showed the people falling from the towers to escape the fire. The news is too gruesome.
We’ll be okay. Bill and Evelyn are right next door. I’m just ready for you to be home.
All my love,
Today the electricity failed. Without it, the office lacks humming from air conditioning, printers, computers, and the refrigerator. Larry and I stared at each other in the silence.
He asked, “What are we going to do?”
“We can’t stay. I have to talk to Sherry and RJ. I need to know they’re okay.”
“Hell with it. Let’s go.” Larry held out his hand. I took it.
When we stepped outside, we saw the police push at the protestors with clear, plastic shields. The protestors pushed back. Larry made a noise I’d never heard before. I stopped and turned back to the sight of Larry, lying on the ground, with the remnants of a flat-screen TV embedded in what used to be his egg-shaped head.
Larry died leaving the building. Larry died leaving the building. Larry died leaving the building.
I ran back inside and blocked the office door with a desk.
People from another firm started pounding at the door half an hour later. I heard three of them, a woman with a strident voice and two men who just grunted. Thankfully they couldn’t break the wire-reinforced windows on either side. The seconds crawled until the pounding stopped. The elevator doors dinged shut, and I tried to start breathing again. My bottle of anti-anxiety meds was empty.
“Sherry? How are you doing?” Worrying about them was worse than the hunger. “I couldn’t wait until dusk. I just needed to hear your voices. How’s RJ?” She went to get our son, and I imagined her making her way to his room, opening the door hung with colorful drawings.
I walked to one of the south windows and watched clusters of people around the Wells Fargo Arena. Proud and tired arms held protest signs that said, “Down with Big Corn! Down with government!” Plumes of smoke prevented me from seeing farther south.
“Hi, kiddo. I miss you, too. Tell me about your day.” Little things about home were more precious than food to me, even though I imagined the taste of mac and cheese every night before I passed out on the floor. “Are you helping out around the house?” Of course he was. “Good boy. I love you. Now let me talk to Mom . . . Don’t worry about me, honey. There are plenty of granola bars, and I’m sure the president will send help soon. Love you. Talk to you tomorrow.” I stared down at the phone in my hand with its dead battery. If only I had talked to my family.
I’m leaving in the morning.
I was losing hope the National Guard would come. I didn’t know how long I was going to manage on Jolly Ranchers. I eyed the snack cakes. Maybe if I tried to sleep, I could manage on a bite of snack cake in the morning.
It was clear the city couldn’t handle the growing mobs. I was trying to come up with a way to get home when the soft sound of metal scraping on wood broke into my worrying. Were they trying to get the door open with some kind of tool? I tiptoed behind a cubicle and sat on the floor, resuming my descent into anxiety. I held my knees to my chest. After too long, they quit.
Eventually, I stood up and stared outside for the last couple hours of daylight. Sunset reflected from the upper hotel windows across the street in rows of cotton-candy clouds. The sky reminded me of the crayon color cornflower, the same as RJ’s drawing on the refrigerator at home. The blue darkened to purple as the light faded. A few rooms reflected nothing; broken windows let curtains flap as I lost the sun.
I woke up and grabbed my purse. I’d packed what I could carry the night before. I stank. Washing in the sink had managed to get me cleaner, but not clean. I checked my pill bottle one last time, but it was empty. I unblocked the door and walked to the stairs, my shoes clacking on the tile floor. I thought about taking them off to avoid being heard by anyone who might be roaming the building, but the place seemed lifeless. I didn’t dare stop on any of the other floors to have a look.
Protestors crowded the street as I blinked in the sunshine and hugged the purse to my side. I couldn’t breathe. Not protestors: activists. Breathe. I had to get to Sherry and RJ. I ran my thumb along the bands on my ring finger and took a deep breath as I stepped into disorder.