portion of the artwork for Erin Fitzgerald's fiction

Signs and Symptoms
Erin Fitzgerald

A paper is due in three days. I walk up the center aisle of the grocery store, past the sixty-percent-off pool toys and the still-small shelf of Christmas ornaments, past the Bob the Builder picture books and hula hoops. I stop in front of the Hallowe’en candy.

I always spell Hallowe’en with the apostrophe. People tease me for it. I can’t stop.

The shelves would bulge if they weren’t strong. Chocolate disappears quickly, and the high needs to last three days. Chewy candy could crack a tooth, and a paper is due in three days. Candy in fun-size boxes is complicated to open when a paper is due in three days.

A bag of Tootsie Pops is on the bottom shelf. It is the size of my pillowcase. NEW FLAVORS shouts in red letters. The bag will last three days, and then I will be able to rest.

The room where I work is dim. My notes are stacked against a window that was open last week, but is too chilly on the inside glass to open now. The pillowcase-bag slouches on my desk, then moves to the floor. The Tootsie Pop NEW FLAVORS are pomegranate and blue raspberry. Blue raspberry is not really NEW.

Each Tootsie Pop I close my lips around is mostly smooth, with exactly two sharp rifts in random places. My job is to finish the paper in three days and find all of the rifts with my tongue. Sometimes the rift edges slice my tongue before I know I’ve found them. Sometimes they catch my tongue where I’ve already been sliced. After three hours in the dim room with the stacked papers and the cold window and shiny snaggy Tootsie Pops, cola tastes like blood.

I bite my Tootsie Pops after the stick is soggy. The melted sugar, colors, flavors settle into the corners of my mouth. When the stick is empty, I tuck it inside the wrapper and throw it in the wastebasket. I don’t look at the wastebasket. I reach into the plastic pillowcase. I throw back brown Tootsie Pops, but keep the rest. My lips creak when I open them to start over.

I throw back brown Tootsie Pops because their surfaces are medium grade sandpaper, because even though the ingredients are the same, they don’t taste like they hit my bloodstream like red or orange or blue raspberry. Brown Tootsie Pops taste like they are meant to be savored, and I am not interested in savoring.

When the three days are over and the stack at the cold dim window has turned into a rugged fan, the paper is done. All of the Tootsie Pops in the pillowcase are gone except for nine chocolate ones. I could throw them out. I could take them to the kitchen and put them in the communal candy bowl, where they would be consumed – eventually – by other people.

I eat them. I eat nine in a row, without stopping. I can’t feel my tongue and the back of my throat is scratchy and my fingers are wrinkled and there are places on my face that are sticky even though food never goes there.

When the last stick is in the wastebasket, I pick up the plastic pillowcase. I open the hole slightly more, and put it on top of my head. I walk into the kitchen, where my daughter is eating carrot sticks. “I love your hat, Mommy,” she says. “Can I have a lollipop?”

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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 34 | Fall 2011