A Short Story from the novel GARDENWILD

By Michael Conniff

Copyright © 2022

All Rights Reserved

         “I want a Fruity Sheet!” Noah said.

gardenwild, short story, novel, fictionWe were in the kitchen the next morning and he was stamping his feet like exclamation points at the end of every sentence. A violence came with each stomp when foot met floor, an unadulterated anger I had never seen before in my only son. I could feel the vibration at the kitchen table all the way up through the tile. He had never done anything remotely like this before.

“We can go to the Shop ‘N’ Save after breakfast,” I said.

“No, no, no!” Noah said. “I don’t want any stupid breakfast! I want Fruity Sheets!”

“You need to eat some real food first.”

No!” Noah said. “I don’t want real food. I want Fruity Sheets. That’s what I want.”

“I’ve got eggs, or Life, or some blueberry bagels. I’ve got cherry Pop-Tarts. I can make you pancakes, French toast, Eggos—whatever you want, sweetheart.”

         “They always have Fruity Sheets. They have big boxes of them in the basement. They can have them whenever you want, even when they don’t really want them.”

“We are not the Maddens. The Maddens have many things we don’t have.”

“We can get some Fruity Sheets from the Maddens. We could go over there right now. They’ve got cherry, grape, tangerine, red-and-white, blue—”

“We’re not going to the Maddens for Fruity Sheets, Noah. It’s that simple. After you have your breakfast we can go to the store.”

“This is an emergency!” he said.

“We’ll get them after we eat breakfast!”

Noah was beginning to bawl in a torrent of tears way out of proportion to his deprivation.

“It’s not fair. When I’m at the Maddens I can have Fruity Sheets whenever I want.”

“All right, all right,” I said.

The initial capitulation is always the worst, that first irrevocable step on the slippery slope growing slicker by the stride. In America we raise our children to want and to have—to have right now—so it was easy for me to take the easiest route while knowing all the while things would only get worse.

I could already hear the words of my wife in my ears:

It’s hard to say no, but then it gets easier. It’s easy to say yes, but then it gets harder.

How could it be so easy for her to say no and so impossible for me? This was among the many things she made look so easy, like she was born with a wisdom I would never find. Somehow she always said no with the smallest smile meant to be the furthest thing from mirth. When she smiled like that Noah knew my wife meant business and his protests would end.

I had no such armor. My time on the road away from Noah and my general state of heartache left me in a position of almost unbearable vulnerability. At this moment in time, when Noah needed unconditional love, the only sure path for me as a father in Gardenwild came through unspoken and unspeakable capitulation. With nowhere to turn, I carried out the tragedy of buying one thing after another—from the latest bicycle just like Will Madden’s, to the humble and nutritionally horrendous Fruity Sheets. By some inscrutable definition, the more you had in Gardenwild the more you were, and Noah learned his lessons at the Maddens all too well while I was blabbing away about my book from sea to shining sea.

One can’t expect a child, especially a child as sensitive as mine, with one living parent, to flirt with an artificially enriched family yet come out unscathed. The tectonic plates of my son’s soul, grating against one another in childhood, had shifted through no fault of his own.

As we drove to the Shop ‘N’ Save, I knew with certainty he embraced only what he could possess, if only for that instant. This was the United States of America, after all, and in Gardenwild we had to do our part to prime the pump of progress. We had to immediately accede to every need. We had to have what we wanted when we wanted it.

The children wanted everything because we, their parents, had everything on hand. Had we not come of age in the greatest moment of prosperity in world history, when every product and service in every permutation was a click away? As the world shrunk the message to our children was clear: they could have anything they ever wanted—any flavor or any style—from anywhere in the world, with two-day free shipping included.

With civilizations collapsing everywhere, it was our job as citizens of the world in Gardenwild to keep buying everything in sight.

This much I knew: The Maddens were a symptom, not the cause, and the cause was overwhelming the petri dish that was Gardenwild.

We got a shopping cart at the Shop ‘N’ Save and Noah literally ran ahead of me to the aisle where Fruity Sheets were kept for just such an emergency. Even as I went to get his faux food I knew this shopping trip was an unforgivable mistake, a failure of will condemned by enlightened parents everywhere—and every living expert on childrearing. In my defense I have no defense: when a single parent is at the end of his (her) (their) rope, he (she) (they) will buy a small amount of temporary happiness every single time. Bliss prevails for sixty seconds or so, as you know, then the parent pays for his or her weakness for a long time to come—for forever after, actually. I knew to give in like this meant I would suffer the consequences in spades.

“Grape!” Noah shouted. “Apple!”

My son was literally shivering, even feverish, as he picked up the first box. He started tossing box after box of Fruity Sheets into the cart. He was ready to load the cart to the brim had I not physically restrained him.

“That’s enough, son,” I said. “That’s far too much.”

I put back all the boxes but three: Grape, Apple, and Cherry.

“It’s not fair, Poppa. It’s so not fair. I hate you.”

Stocking the larder had never been my strong suit, but the least I could do for Noah in his pain was to manufacture some sense of bounty. As we moved up one aisle and down the next, he had an uncanny eye for advertised concoctions full of sugar and saturated fat, his compensation for my neglect and his pain. With my wife beside me, I would have reprimanded him and automatically returned the goods to their place, but now my willingness to give in felt like the only tie that bound us together. At the checkout counter, our cart was split between my low-fat fare and Noah’s awful advertised confections.

“I always thought a friend was a friend was a friend,” Noah said. “That’s what you told me.”

“That’s what friendship is all about.”

“I thought the Maddens liked me, Poppa,” Noah said. “They always said they liked me. Will likes me, doesn’t he?”

“They like you very much,” I said automatically. “Everyone does. You’re a very good boy.”

Over Noah’s shoulder I could see Judy Gilhooley—with the twins Ry and Ty in tow—turning the far corner of the aisle and coming our way. I prepared for politesse and small talk about her husband’s triathlon—but when she saw us she hit the brakes, pulled back on the shopping cart, and forcibly pulled her bookend children back down the aisle.

Noah didn’t see their escape but I could feel the tectonic plates grinding again beneath the linoleum underfoot. I felt the earth move once more as we stood alone at the checkout counter despite lines three or four deep at every other station. Somehow, in some inexplicable way, our lives had changed forever, shifting from the spiritual equivalent of real food to a diet based on fake fruit. But I had no idea why and nobody was about to tell me.

Have you ever had a Fruity Sheet?

I was having a Strawberry in the car on the way home as Noah lit into his third Grape. I am amazed at what the government allows the manufacturer to categorize as food. When you buy Fruity Sheets you get a slim sheet of something with an unearthly color melting in your mouth so quickly it might never have been there at all. I looked at the data on the box of Strawberry Sheets and found actual fruit in the concoction—pears from concentrate, corn syrup, dried corn syrup, sugar and partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil—but no strawberries in the Strawberry, no grapes in the Grape. Fruity Sheets were nothing more than a euphemism for something you can pluck off a vine or a tree or a shelf. Even in a world full of fake food they were so fake it was not funny.

I touched the Strawberry against my tongue and Noah would have opened up a fourth Grape had I not taken the box away from him.

Hey!” he shouted like the angry boy he had become overnight.

Not even the eating of a forbidden apple could have left me with more foreboding. When it came to the fate of my beloved son and the remnants of my own family, all innocence was now lost. And absolutely nothing had been gained.