By Emily Johns-O’Leary
Feature image: Little Walter’s Toys, 1912 by August Macke
Edison was allowed to spend one-third of his monthly spending money on manatee merchandise, but it usually came to about half. His mother was a marine biologist, and Edison had seen a photograph in one of her magazines when he was six and couldn’t stop looking at the manatee’s bloated snout and flippers like gray oven mitts pinned to the balloon of its body. He was thirty- one now and bought his own nature magazines to look for more pictures, more patient expressions on the floating creatures. Their eyes seemed to want to listen only to him.
He woke early on a Thursday worried about his spending money. He moved Harold’s plush tail and found his phone beneath an umbrella his father had given him. Edison paused to close and open the umbrella, watching the manatee’s face crumple and smooth. Ten years earlier, when his parents said he should have more independence, when his case manager found a retired woman on the other side of San Diego whose client with special needs had moved out of her basement room, they encouraged him not to decorate the walls like his childhood bedroom. “You’re grown up now, Eddy,” his mother said, and his father—so rarely in the same room as his mother and stepdad— nodded and squeezed his shoulder. But Edison had been up all night thinking about moving out of his parents’ house, just like his high school classmates. He was certainly going to decorate the room with manatees.
Now he picked up his phone and put it down. His mother was at a conference and his stepdad had said not to call before 6:30 in the morning. He wasn’t supposed to call his father about money at all. He turned on the computer and pinched the extra skin on his knees. The number 6,620 was written on a white board on his wall, the last aerial survey count of Florida manatees. He checked the websites of several zoos and aquariums for news of recent births and found nothing to update, so he picked up his phone at 6:25.
His stepdad answered on the third ring. “Morning, Eddy.”
“Hi, Dave. Please send the money to Cara. My spending money for next month.”
“For June? What’s today, May 29th. Did you get your Arc paycheck?” Dave had a job in customer service and always sounded upbeat.
“Yes, but I really need you to send it by tomorrow. Because we have special lunch on Fridays.”
“I don’t know, Eddy. I’ll check with your mom after work, okay?”
“Okay. Please talk to Mom,” said Edison. He hung up and smiled at his fa- vorite poster of a manatee in shallow turquoise water. Its body angled upward and the nose of its friendly face grazed the underside of the surface, just hidden from open air.
He smelled breakfast in the kitchen. Cara scrambled eggs every morning be- cause Edison wouldn’t eat anything else, and he always made sure he could smell them before he came upstairs. He liked to have the same foods every day: eggs for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, pasta with chicken for dinner. Only Fridays were different, when his day program went to the mall and ate lunch at the food court, and that had taken Edison years of adjustment. The case man- ager put a goal in his plan that he would become flexible enough to eat with the group once a week. At first he refused to attend on Fridays, then went along but stayed in the bathroom, then brought his own lunch to eat at the end of a food court table near the carousel. His friend Donald, who didn’t like manatees but always agreed to look at Edison’s pictures anyway, convinced him to try a bite of taco one day. Edison bit through the shell and froze with the bite in his mouth, the flavors mixing on his tongue like the swirling carousel horses. The taste felt new and familiar at the same time, like seeing his own bedroom through a window. Edison hadn’t wanted anything else on Fridays ever since and kept finding new things he loved about the day: planning which soda he would order, slapping down bills and waiting for change, the tug of coins drop- ping back in his pocket.
Cara turned when he came into the kitchen, smiling and pretending to hide the skillet as she did every day. She was a tall woman who had once been a forest ranger but retired after an injury outrunning a fire, and she watched everything around her with narrowed eyes as though it might start sparking.
“Morning, Edison! Bad news—there’s only cereal today.”
Edison pointed. “I can see the eggs!”
Cara jumped when she looked at the skillet. “Well, I’ll be! Have a seat, sweetheart.” She set a plate of scrambled eggs next to salt, pepper, and Tabasco. Edison began to eat his eggs, plain.
“I’m thinking about painting this kitchen,” said Cara, pouring Tabasco over her own eggs. “I’m tired of the moose on that wallpaper and I’m ready for a change.”
Edison nodded. He occasionally felt ready for a change, like when he tried a new side dish with his Friday tacos.
“You would paint your manatees, I guess.” She winked at Edison.
“Yes, that’s what I would paint,” he said. “Did my stepdad send you money?” “What money?”
“My lunch money for tomorrow.”
Cara turned off the burner. “Was he supposed to? Didn’t you get your Arc paycheck?”
Edison shrugged. He worked at an Arc thrift store three afternoons a week, shelving donations and greeting customers. He had spent his last pay- check on a National Geographic and a mug with a silicone manatee that held loose-leaf tea, but he didn’t want to tell Cara. There had been one month last year when he ran out of spending money and his parents didn’t send more. Dave said on the phone that maybe they should just give it to him—“What’s ten dollars if it makes him so happy?”—but his mother refused. “He’s thirty. He needs to learn,” she said, her voice choked. Cara had given Edison a brown paper sack and he’d crunched the top closed when they arrived at the food court that afternoon, refusing to pull out the turkey sandwich as everyone else lined up for tacos or pizza or burgers. Donald kept patting his back and offering fries, then changed the subject to the new puppy in the mall’s pet store when Edison didn’t respond. Edison squished the bag into a ball and promised himself he would never bring his lunch again.
Now, Cara swished water in her mouth and stood. “I’ll talk to Dave. But I don’t think it’s this week, Edison.”
He nodded and thought about whether he would get root beer or orange soda with his lunch as he zipped his favorite blue coat. He liked the taste of root beer, but looking into a cup of orange soda and seeing bubbles on the bottom was his favorite. Root beer was too dark to see through. He tightened his hood and fastened the snap over his chin.
One of Cara’s neighbors was already on the bus stop bench in front of a coral pink house. He laughed and patted Edison’s coat. “It’s almost seventy degrees out here, Ed! You’re ready for a blizzard.”
“I get cold,” said Edison, climbing onto the bus and scanning his pass. It had been a relief when they installed the new scanners; it took too long to count change. His favorite seat at the front was open, the best spot near the driver, and today it was Terry.
“How’s it going, Edison?” Terry called over his shoulder as he pulled toward the freeway ramp lined with eucalyptus trees. “Keepin’ warm?”
“Yes. But there was no manatee news. And it’s Thursday and I don’t know if my stepdad will send my lunch money for tomorrow.”
“What about your mom?”
“My mom can’t answer her phone today because she’s at a conference about jellyfish.”
“Well, your stepdad always remembers,” Terry said.
“Yes,” said Edison, pulling out his phone and watching it until the bus stopped. He stood, still looking at the screen, and bumped into someone. The phone fell and bounced on the floor.
“Watch it!” said a man’s voice as Edison bent to pick up the phone. It had a blue case with a photograph of a manatee whose back was dusted with algae, and Edison smiled. Algae grew well in the sunlight on manatees’ backs as they floated near the surface. He liked the idea of that blanket.
“You think it’s funny, kid?” said the man, who was a few years older than Edison and wearing a dark business suit.
“No,” said Edison. “I was smiling at my manatee.”
“Let him by, please, sir,” said Terry.
The man rolled his eyes and pushed past. Edison gripped the phone case and looked at Terry, who shrugged and shook his head. Edison climbed down the steps one at a time.
It had happened before, the being pushed aside. He was ten when he was sent to the corner in karate class after Jill Thomas grabbed his arm and whispered, “Retard,” her nails digging in. Edison yelled the worst name he knew—“STUPID!”—as he pulled away and she lost her balance, falling backwards. The sensei steered him off the mat by the shoulders and told him they didn’t treat each other like that in his dojo, then called Edison’s mother.
She marched in ten minutes later, her blazer creased like ripples in water. Edison could hear her talking to the sensei with the usual phrases she said about him—young for his age, we don’t have a diagnosis, and it’s so good for him to participate. Then the sensei shook his head and Edison heard the other kids have a right, and rules are rules.
His mother didn’t speak as she pulled Edison from the studio in his white uniform, his belt dangling as they crossed the uneven pavement of the parking lot. He looked up to see if she was angry and his foot caught a lip of asphalt.
He swung into his mother’s leg as he gripped her hand before hitting the ground.
He covered his scraped knee with his hands and tried not to cry.
“Oh, Eddy, I’m sorry,” she said, kneeling next to him. “You’re doing fine, sweetie, I was startled. You know I never want you to get hurt.”
“Jill Thomas called me the R-word.” He expected her eyes to narrow as they always did when she was angry about how someone treated him. She looked like that during their nightly conversations as she paced his bedroom, lecturing him on what a good person he was and how he should stand up for himself. Sometimes his father told her to give it a rest, that Edison had gotten the point. But she only stared forward and squeezed her car keys. “I’m sure she did, sweetie. We’ll talk about it later.”
They didn’t talk about it later, but Edison’s parents did. He heard the sharp sounds of their voices downstairs while he gathered Harold and Jumbo in his arms, stroking their gray snouts and flippers, and pretended to be asleep when his father and then his mother came in, separately, to kiss him goodnight.
His mother invited a colleague, a manatee specialist, to dinner the next week. When Edison asked if there would be enough manatees soon for them to spread to San Diego, Dr. Spiegel said they were in fact disappearing even in their natural habitats in the south Atlantic. “It’s the propellers of boats especially,” he explained. “You know how manatees like to float near the surface? They get sliced by the propellers. Sometimes they survive. Sometimes not.”
Edison’s mother glanced at his father, who raised his eyebrows and jabbed a fork into his salmon. Edison leaned against the wooden slats of his chair, imag- ining how propellers would feel slicing his skin. Jill Thomas’s fingernails had bitten through his karate uniform. He ran to his room, his mother apologizing to Dr. Spiegel before following Edison and rubbing his back as he lay curled on the bed, shaking.
His mother left the room when his father came in. “Can I have a pudding?” Edison asked.
“May I,” said his father.
“May I have a pudding?”
His father adjusted Jumbo and Harold so that their snouts fit under Edison’s chin. “It’s 8:30, Eddy. It’s too late for pudding, it’s not good for you.”
He squeezed the tears out from between his closed eyelids. Jill Thomas’s voice had been so harsh in his ear. He concentrated on the taste of chocolate pudding, wishing he could have some.
He called his stepdad again as he walked from the bus stop to the office build- ing, but Dave didn’t answer, so he pushed the door with his shoulder and waited for the elevator. The adult day program had improved over the years. When he had first arrived, it was like his high school classes with the same basic skills every day: making lists, talking on the phone, buying a bus pass. There was always someone in the class who didn’t understand yet. The program had been better since Jennifer took over two years ago. She wore several bracelets at a time and spoke quickly to everyone, no matter their disability. She brought guest speakers to teach things Edison thought were useful, like how batteries worked and why glaciers moved. He always requested Dr. Fajardo, a leading manatee researcher in Florida, and Jennifer always nodded and put another circle around it on her list so he would know she was still trying.
The brightly decorated room on the third floor smelled like bleach and the cookies they had baked the day before. Maddie was already there, gazing at the ceiling with her head resting on the back of her wheelchair. Donald was walking around the room with his lopsided step, waving one arm from side to side at the elbow. Heather sat with her head on the table. Edison said hello to her three times as he passed, but she didn’t look up.
“Good morning, Edison,” said Jennifer, her bracelets clinking as she gave him a high five and pointed to the seat next to Donald.
“Hi, Edison,” said Donald. “How are you, Edison?”
“Good.” Edison opened his backpack and pulled out the tiny snow globe his mother had brought him from a recent conference trip.
They went around the circle in their daily greeting. Jason, Elora, and José had to be cut off when they launched into long stories. Maddie, Heather, and Leo did not speak. At his turn, Edison held up the snow globe and shook it to make flakes fall around the skyline of Seattle. Jennifer commented that the foundation of the Space Needle extended thirty feet underground. Donald asked if he could hold it and stroked the globe in his hand like a baby bird, smiling at Edison as he passed it back.
Jennifer announced it was their day to volunteer at the nursing home. Edison preferred the thrift store: he got paid and it was interesting to go through donations, wondering how people had used things and why they had given them away. But the nursing home residents were friendly and listened to anything they wanted to talk about. Edison always brought an article to read aloud. Today he had one about manatees’ brains, which were smoother than other mammals’ brains even though manatees were almost as smart as dolphins. They were just less motivated to learn tricks because they couldn’t be bribed with fish. It made him laugh. He didn’t like fish, either.
When the group stepped onto the elevator, Edison realized he had left his article on the table and hurried back, looking at his phone on the way. Dave hadn’t called.
Jennifer was waiting for him at the door when he caught up with the group. “Edison, where were you?” she said. “You know the rules—we have to stay together. For safety.”
Maddie made a low, reverberating noise like a gong and smiled at Edison, her head tilted and a string of brown hair falling to the side. He stuffed the magazine into his backpack, checking his phone one more time. The blank screen made him feel helpless, like the times he tried to speak to someone and they pretended he wasn’t there at all.
Soon after he’d been sent out of karate, his parents started to go to appointments and didn’t bring Edison. They told him they needed to see a special doctor, and he understood because he had been to many special doctors. His mother was always taking her temperature and circling days on Edison’s manatee calendar in the kitchen, and his father was more unpredictable than usual. Edison never knew if he would be delighted to see him or yell without warning or look past Edison’s shoulder when they spoke, as though he were waiting for someone else to enter the room.
One evening Edison’s parents had an appointment and he stayed with a baby- sitter who didn’t let him go anywhere alone, even to the bathroom. His parents returned when it was almost dark and Edison was coloring at the kitchen table. His mother had her eyes half-closed the way she did when Edison asked a question she had already answered several times. His father leaned against the counter with folded arms.
“They could be wrong,” his mother said. “We could keep trying.”
“It’s been six years,” said his father, twisting a spoon between his fingers. “Please don’t pretend everything’s fine.”
Edison opened the pantry door and found several bottles of his favorite grape juice. The babysitter hadn’t let him touch them. He took one from the shelf.
“May I use the computer?” said Edison.
“Sure, baby,” said his mother, turning to pull a salad bowl from the cabinet. Edison wasn’t allowed to use the computer alone and he stared at his mother for a moment, wondering if he had heard right, then ran upstairs before she changed her mind. He wanted to check the number of manatees that were still alive; his father had shown him how to look them up on the Internet after Dr. Spiegel’s visit. He pressed buttons until the screen started to glow blue like light under water. He smiled, stretching his lips as wide as they would go and watch- ing how the screen distorted them, then took a long drink of grape juice. The sugar lingered on his tongue.
He wasn’t supposed to place the drink on the wooden desk, so he found a stack of papers that said Mission Bay Fertility Clinic. He wondered what that meant as he set the grape juice on top. The bottom of the bottle curved slightly and he poked it, making the dark juice ripple back and forth. He smiled and poked it again—gently, he thought—but then the cool liquid was splashing over his hands and into every crevice between the computer keys.
Edison’s mother arrived first when he yelled and she had a moment to take in the scene, the wet keyboard, the writing smudged on the now-purple papers. She opened her mouth but it was his father who yelled Edison’s name, striding in and slamming his hand onto the pile. A few drops of juice squirted out the side.
“I just can’t,” his father said. His mouth opened like he was surprised at his words, but then he repeated them. “I just can’t. I just can’t.” He flicked juice from his hand and kept saying the phrase with deep breaths, as though it calmed him.
Edison felt calmed by it, too. “I just can’t,” he echoed. He cradled the papers, fingers wrapped around the sides to hold in the liquid, and raised the stack from his chest, offering it to his father.
His father did not reach forward. The papers began to feel heavy as his father kept muttering—“I just can’t, I just can’t”—and then they were stronger than Edison, sliding toward the ground, moving him where they wanted. He would continue to feel this way as he moved between his parents’ houses in the years that followed, as he got used to his new stepdad, as he moved in with Cara. He learned, that day, the dizzy spinning feeling the world could have, even while he stayed still.
Edison listened while Cara called his parents after spaghetti on Thursday night. She had told him he could listen when she was talking about him. Usually he didn’t care, but tonight he stood on the basement stairs with his ear close to the door. “Jennifer told me he’s doing a great job at the thrift store,” Cara was saying. “And I’m thinking of painting the kitchen, so I’ll let you know which weekend and maybe he can visit you then. Oh, and he’s been asking about his spending money? Yeah, he said he called Dave.” A pause. “Right, that’s what I thought. Did Dave tell him that?” She paused again, longer. “Okay. That’s going to be hard.”
Edison wondered what would be hard. He went back to his room and rolled into bed, Harold’s glassy eyes watching him from the shelf. Harold had been his first manatee and one of his eyes was loose, the fur around it patchy. Jennifer said no stuffed animals at the mall, but Edison wished he could bring Harold to lunch the next day. The orange soda would fizz in his cup, bubbles rising and disappearing at the surface.
He arrived in the kitchen before Cara on Friday morning and sat at the table, picking up the chicken-shaped saltshaker and tilting it from side to side. He usually ate his tacos plain, but maybe today he would add ranch dressing from the dispensers. Just one taco, just to try it. He had seen Donald put ranch on his pizza last week.
Cara arrived in her green bathrobe and slippers.
“Hi, Cara. Did my parents send my lunch money?”
Cara pulled a carton of eggs from the refrigerator. “Edison, remember how
Dave said it’s still May?”
The row of chickens on the wallpaper faced the same direction, marching away in a straight line. Cara’s phone rang as Edison nodded. She checked the number and handed it to Edison.
“Hi, Eddy,” said his mother’s voice, warm and reassuring. “Hi, Mom. Did you send Cara my spending money?”
“Remember Dave told you it’s still May?”
“I need money for lunch today.”
“I know. But it’s not time yet,” said his mother, pausing between the words. He wished she were there to put her arms around him. Maybe she would be crying. Sometimes she cried when she told him no.
“But I need to buy lunch.”
“Your money has to last the whole month. Remember we talked about it?” She coughed. “That’s our agreement.”
Edison turned the saltshaker upside down. A thin waterfall of crystals floated out, like bubbles going the wrong way.
“You can pack a lunch here,” said Cara, gently taking the phone and salt- shaker, brushing his flannel sleeve. His mother’s faint voice was garbled as the phone moved away. “I’m sorry, Eddy,” he heard her say. “I love you.”
Edison wanted to yell and grab the saltshaker back, but Cara looked sad. He grabbed the sides of his chair and held on, concentrating on the taste of chicken tacos, of the orange soda he wouldn’t have.
He sat on the bench of the long white table with his feet propped on the bar underneath. He opened the brown bag with his turkey sandwich and peanut butter celery. Cara had also slipped in a cookie.
In the kitchen that morning, they had talked about what he spent his money on and how much he would have to save each week in the future to last the whole month. Skip a soda sometimes on Fridays. No manatee souvenirs over ten dollars. One less nature magazine, even if it had a manatee picture he had never seen before. Even then.
“Hi, Edison,” said Donald, sliding onto the bench. “You know sailors used to see manatees on rocks and they thought they were mermaids? Isn’t that funny?” Donald laughed. “Jennifer told me to tell you.”
Edison nodded. Of course he knew that. He put his head on the table until Donald patted his shoulder and left, then stared around the echoing atrium. Two parents watched their children climb on the carousel. A tall man in a hot dog costume wobbled between tables, barely avoiding a baby in a stroller. Donald was now pushing Maddie’s wheelchair toward the line at the pizza place and greeting everyone who passed, and José was paying for Chinese food, touching his knee every few seconds. Edison breathed harder. Heather stepped forward to the sandwich counter and raised her face from her scarf to order. Leo was staring at the salad bar and a man behind him checked his watch. The busy room wheeled around Edison, people crossing and weaving past each other in different lines, making their choices.
Donald’s backpack leaned against the bench next to him. The small top pocket was unzipped, and the corners of a few dollar bills poked out. Edison stared at them. Donald was a friend. He would understand. Edison closed his lunch bag and looked both ways as they were reminded to do before crossing a street. No one was watching. He reached down and slipped the folded two dollars out of the pocket. He didn’t even have to move the zipper.
“What can I get for you?” said the man in the red cap without looking up.
“One orange soda, please,” Edison said. The words felt good on his tongue. It always felt good to ask for something he knew would be given to him.
“What size?” said the cashier.
“Medium.” He held out the bills, which were creased perfectly in fourths where Donald had folded them.
Then the cup was in his hand and the bubbles vibrated against the paper, charging his fingertips. He lowered his face to let the light spray mist his chin. He turned without saying thank you—he was beyond manners—and walked past the long table, past the carousel and the hot dog man and out the auto- matic doors.
He had only a few minutes before Jennifer would realize he was missing, before she would call him over and ask how he bought the orange soda. Before Donald would pat Edison on the shoulder and say he had lent Edison the two dollars. Before the headcount on the bus and the afternoon sorting donations at the thrift store, pulling what was valuable from heaps of objects that other people had sent away. The incident would not be important enough to report to Cara or to Edison’s parents, who would transfer his June spending money on Sunday.
But now Edison sat in the sunshine that cut through the fronds of a palm tree. He leaned back on the bench, legs sprawled, plastic straw between his teeth. The bubbles of the soda were sharp in his throat and he kept gulping, relishing the cold burn, choosing it again with each sip. He drank until his straw gurgled through the ice at the bottom of the cup, then stood and stretched, letting the humid air wash around his bare arms. He turned to go back inside. The sliding doors opened before him as they would for anyone else, without question, and he stepped through.
Emily Johns-O’Leary is a doctoral student in literacy education at the University of Colorado Boulder. She is a graduate of the Book Project at Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, where she wrote (and is still writing) a historical novel. “Soda Money” is her first published story.
Feature image: Courtesy Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main. Image released under Creative Commons CC BY-SA 4.0.