Jacob can’t remember learning math; it’s just something he’s always known how to do. If there were 3 chickens and papa took away 1, there were 2 left. It was simple. His parents, humble, hardworking people, never had heads for figures like he did. They were born to till land and milk cows while Jacob was born to count. His earliest memories are of trying to help his parents budget. Before most children knew how to multiply, Jacob knew each of his parents’ expenses, how much their income was, the cost of their property, and how much they owed. He can still remember the planked walls, the sweet smell of corn wafting in through the window, the aroma of his parents’ sweat, and the feel of their calloused hands on the back of his neck as he sat at the kitchen table and tried to problem solve. If there were three acres of land and the bank took away all of them, what was left? Nothing. What was nothing multiplied but nothing? Still nothing.
Now at almost ninety years old, Jacob’s gnarled spine hunches him over a shopping cart as he does what he is born to do. 50 rolls of toilet paper in one box. At 264 squares per roll and approximately 3 squares per use and 6 squares on a normal day, that’s 44 days’ worth. At $17.99 that’s 36 cents per roll—it says so on the sign, but he crunches the numbers just to be sure. A good deal. It’s not the nice quilted paper; it’s the uncomfortable scratchy kind, but for 36 cents, it doesn’t matter. He picks up one of the cardboard boxes with wrinkled hands and aching arthritic wrists, and puts it into his cart. He slides a second box on top of it, feeling the same dull throb in his tendons, and looks at his stack of toilet paper with triumph. He’s lifted them both all on his own, and although they are lighter than they appear, he allows himself a moment of pride before hobbling toward the cash register. A successful trip.
At the register, he leaves the two boxes in his cart. He knows the cashier can reach over with her scanner, and there’s no need to exert himself again until he’s made it out to his car. Bulk Blokes is Jacob’s favorite store.
Three young adults fall in line behind him at the register—two boys and a girl. They’re well-groomed, the boys wearing bright colored t-shirts tucked into jeans, one of them with a well-used Sony Walkman stuffed into his back pocket. They’re likely in their twenties and attending the local university. The girl has a bag of chips under her arm which is almost double the price it was last week. A rip off. One of the boys carries two bottles of pop, not a horrible deal, but Jacob has seen better, and the other has two cassette tapes.
As the cashier leans over to scan the barcodes on Jacob’s purchase, the trio begins to snicker, whispering amongst themselves.
“That is a lot,” the girl remarks to her friends, sizing up Jacob’s toilet paper.
“Well, it is Bulk Blokes,” the Walkman boy answers.
“But when would you ever need that much?” she whispers.
Jacob rummages through his pockets and places his metal coins on the counter, counting out the amount he owes, listening. His eyes have been going, requiring bifocals in recent years, but his ears are still as sharp as they were sixty years ago despite the gray hairs sprouting from them.
The conversation continues and the girl sneers, “I guess when you’re old enough to shit yourself, you need a little extra toilet paper.” Jacob almost loses count of his coins. Almost.
The group snickers, and the Sony Walkman boy remarks, “In his case, a lot extra.”
The old man’s face burns with damp heat, but he continues to count out his money as if he hasn’t heard them. The cashier pops her gum, oblivious to his embarrassment. He pays exactly the amount owed before shuffling on, pushing his cart away from the kids, all pride he’d felt a moment ago gone.
In the bright parking lot, he slides the boxes onto the backseat of his 1980s Buick but no longer feels the swell of accomplishment at moving the large boxes all on his own. His arthritis seems to have grown worse in the last few minutes, climbing up from his wrists and pulling uncomfortably at his elbows. To the old man, arthritis is like having a child clinging to him, crying and crying. Even when he gives it attention with a wrist brace or an aspirin, it continues to shriek. It was the only child he had, and it had been the reason Jacob retired.
He slides into the driver’s seat with a grunt, but doesn’t start the car. Instead he simply looks out the window feeling sorry for himself. The air of the car is heavy and suffocating. Jacob doesn’t want to feel the cool release of the air conditioning. He wants to sulk in the sweltering heat. 32 degrees. I guess when you’re old enough to shit yourself you need a little extra toilet paper.
Jacob couldn’t blame his parents. No one saw the stock market crash coming and even with the hardships, the little family survived it: Mama, Papa, Jacob, and even his youngest sister, Charlotte, despite his protests to sell her. He had been joking, of course, but he couldn’t help but seriously consider the math. It wasn’t so much her selling price which would gain them a profit, after all she was only a baby at the time—she had been a soft pink blob of tears and shrieks, crying for food which they didn’t have. Hardly any work could be gotten out of her at that age.
They would have to convince potential buyers that she was a long-term investment, and the money the family would save without the necessity of diapers and baby food would prevent them from falling into further debt. However, his mother had been surprisingly offended by his joke, perhaps sensing the extent to which he had considered the variables of the proposition. Her response was well enough anyway. The market for a little sister was probably horrible.
Although Charlotte was too young to remember the ravenous hunger which kept her up at night and almost killed her, Jacob could never understand how her tribulations didn’t scar her into her adult years as they did him. She was the antitheses of her frugal older brother, going through three husbands, travelling the world, and living in six different countries before settling back down in Canada. She had lived a wonderfully reckless life, the kind that Jacob could only dream of. Even as an old man he can still feel the ache of hunger that once was like the ghost pains of an amputated limb.
Now Jacob clenches his fingers around the steering wheel, his bones creaking with the movement, face still hot with embarrassment. The kids from the store skip out in front of his car, chips and pop in hand. They toss their purchases into the back of an old blue Toyota and file into it. The vehicle rumbles to life and rolls through the parking lot.
Without thinking, Jacob starts up his little red Buick. The air conditioning blows at full blast, but the moving air is warm. It’s not dry heat like it was during the hard times. It’s heavy and damp. Jolene by Dolly Parton crackles though his old stereo that’s tuned to an AM oldies station.
Before he can think to stop himself, he pulls out of the parking space, and follows the Toyota. The truck moves onto the street and the red car takes the same route. This isn’t efficient in any way, he thinks, as a needle of anxiety plucks his nerves. It’s wasteful. Jacob can’t bear to be wasteful. In all his years of driving, he’s never driven somewhere where he didn’t need to be.
Yet, he continues to follow, far enough away to avoid raising suspicion, but close enough to keep the blue Toyota in sight, as if by following them he can somehow explain why he needs to buy 100 rolls of toilet paper at a time. He wants to scream until they understand. He needs them to know how the fear of hunger stalks him, more badly than he’s ever needed anything.
The truck and its tail weave through residential houses down University Drive. The man’s earlier suspicions are confirmed; they are students, renting within walking distance of the school. Rent is a waste of money. Always better to buy.
The truck pulls into the driveway of a little house with green trim and white siding. Jacob parks a little way down the street, watching beneath the shade of a tall pine tree, 2.2 kilometers from Bulk Blokes. The girl flounces out of the driver’s seat, grabbing the chips from the back with the boys trailing behind her. The train of students disappear into the house and Jacob sits alone staring at it with his car still running, wondering what he’s doing there.
A sudden anxiety grips him, sharper than the small pinprick he’d had earlier. The gas he’s burned could have been saved for other things, important things.
Chastising himself for being so foolish and calculating the gas he’s just wasted, he pulls out and drives back the way he came, onward to his home. 4.3 kilometers in total.
After The Depression, Jacob went to school and ended up working for a company that advised failing businesses as he had advised his parents when he was a little boy. His job was to play with numbers and variables until he could present each faltering company with the amount of costs they had to cut before the company went kaput—bankrupt. Quite often, a look of horror and hopelessness would flood the faces of his customers when he presented the figure. He knew that look. His parents had worn it when he was a child, and as he had learned, suggesting the sale of family members wasn’t an option. Instead, he would give them advice for lowering costs like cutting back hours, burning less electricity, and shopping at Bulk Blokes where they had wonderfully cheap deals on toilet paper.
When Jacob pulls into the driveway of his little house, he doesn’t feel like bringing the toilet paper inside. It seems like too much effort. But it is more efficient to take it all in one trip, and he’s already been so wasteful, so he carries one of the large boxes and lets the other tumble onto the driveway. He kicks the second box, dribbling it awkwardly up to his front steps. He goes in, plunks the first box outside the bathroom and brings in the second.
The house is simple. It’s one story with a small boxy television. The only art that hangs from the plain white walls, a painting of a field of wheat under a cyan sky, was a gift from Charlotte. There is one bathroom and two bedrooms, one for him and one for when his sister comes to visit. There is a military tidiness to each room, the beds made with blankets tucked under the mattresses, dust to be found on nothing.
After Jacob closes the door behind him and his 100 rolls of toilet paper, he slides off his shoes and places them neatly on the mat. When he looks up, he smiles at the sliver of color he can see where the kitchen is and he uses his thumb to caress the ring finger of his left hand where there is no ring. He heaves a gentle sigh.
The walls of the cooking area are out of place in the plain structure, painted a rich orange and red, the metallic colors of a setting sun. The paint has now faded from the vivacity it once held. He thinks about repainting them, as he always does, but knows that if he marred the color, even in their present faded state, he could never forgive himself. To do so would be a blasphemy against her.
To Jacob, she is in these walls. In the red he sees the wild flames of her hair, and in the orange, he sees the gold flecks in her eyes. They warm him, like the sound of her laughter, and the way he’d felt when she told him that his penny pinching was—what was the word she had used? Endearing. Such a lovely word. His frugality was undeserving of the title. Oh, Susan.
He had never breathed easier than when he was with Susan. She inspired the one moment in his life where he had spent a gratuitous amount of money on something unnecessary: the paint for the walls. Together they had run the wet rollers up and down the bare walls, Jacob’s chest tightening more and more as he recalculated the cost of the bright paint. But then she smiled at him, and the anxiety slipped away. They’d spent the rest of the afternoon laughing and bringing his kitchen to life.
That moment of ease had been fleeting, and it was likely never to repeat itself. Jacob’s chest had remembered how to tighten at the thought of money, and when the idea of marriage was proposed, he simply could not justify a wedding. Painting the walls was one thing, but a wedding? Marriage was marriage. All they needed was to have a few papers signed for it to be official. A large party to commemorate it was wasteful beyond epic proportions. He could still hear her words, the shrill break in her voice as she told him if she couldn’t have a wedding then she couldn’t be with him. That was 40 years ago.
Jacob had run into Susan at Bulk Blokes sometime just after his seventieth birthday. Her skin was no longer taught and firm, and her hair had lost its vibrant sheen of red, but amid the wrinkles on her baby powder skin were those same golden flecks in her eyes. She was waiting in line to purchase a few baby jumpers. She and her husband were expecting grandchildren, she explained with a smile. Jacob had been there for the deal on instant noodles. He was stocking up now just in case the price rose again. He thought he saw a flash of melancholy in her eyes as he told her this. Time had softened the pain of their tumultuous split long ago, and Jacob wondered if perhaps it was pity he saw resting behind that smile.
He wondered what the kitchen walls in her home looked like, but she was called away by the cashier before he could ask.
The man hobbles past his faded kitchen walls to the closet and pulls out a plastic bag from a ratty slipper. He empties his pockets, putting his coins into the bag before tucking it back in the slipper and closing the door. He has multiple hiding places like this throughout the house—except for in the guest room. He doesn’t want Charlotte to find them and tell him he’s crazy. This is a habit he adopted from his mother who never trusted banks again after the crash. “You need more than one hiding spot in case someone breaks in. Safes are too obvious,” he’d been told when he was a teenager, watching as his mother slipped money into a flower pot or tea cup, before she forgot where it was hidden a week later. No wonder we lost the farm, he’d thought. Unlike his mother, Jacob knows exactly how much is in each hiding place and where all of them are.
Now he moves to the chair in front of his clunky white computer and sinks down into the cushions with a groan. Clicking open websites on stocks in which he has always been interested, but too afraid to invest, he lets his eyes glaze over as he calculates probabilities.
His eyes drift away from the computer screen to the stack of cardboard boxes next to the bathroom. His good buy, his pride. He no longer feels the gratification he had when he found them, glaring at them as if it had been them that made Susan leave 40 years and 62 days ago, caused his mother’s nervous breakdown, the hunger he never forgot, and even the stock market crash. But it wasn’t them.
A stab of pain swells in his heart as he recognizes the truth. It was him. It had always been him and his constant anxiety, his counting. Despite losing the farm when he was a child, he and his little family had survived. They’d been okay. But he’d never forgotten, never let go. His sister had almost died, but she had lived her life more fully than anyone he knew. Meanwhile, he’d lived in paralysis. A bigger house, a nicer car, soft toilet paper. He’d never left the country and he was almost 90, now only leaving his home to go to Bulk Blokes. He could have bought a pair of rings, he could have had a wedding, and he could have had children and grandchildren with Susan. It was all his fault. The crippling fear that stalked him throughout his days had debilitated him. He can see it now, but there isn’t anything he can do to change it. It’s just him, alone in his little house with his regrets and 100 rolls of uncomfortable ass-scratching paper.
He can’t stand the sight of the toilet paper anymore. It’s a bitter reminder, mocking him for all that he has lost to the constant fear of not having enough. I guess when you’re old enough to shit yourself you need a little extra. Or in his case, a lot extra.
He scowls at it and tries to stand.
Getting up takes three painful tries, as if while he’s been sitting, his spine has molded into the shape of the chair. Once he’s up, straightening himself out involves several pops and groans of aged muscles, but he is determined to get those damned boxes out of his home. He doesn’t know what he’s going to do with them, but they can’t be here. Not anymore. Not ever again.
Jacob loads his arms up with one box at a time and makes his way out to the car, eventually shoving both into the back seat.
Satisfied, he hops into the driver’s seat, adjusts his bifocals and pulls out of the driveway, motoring towards Bulk Blokes.
The sun has just dipped its head below the horizon of little houses and the sky is the color of his lovely kitchen walls. Somewhere in the back of Jacob’s mind, it occurs to him that it is a Sunday and Bulk Blokes would have closed 22 minutes ago, but it doesn’t slow the pace of his car. 60 kilometers per hour, 10 over the speed limit. He zooms towards his favorite store, glaring at the oversized cartoon man that’s their logo. It grows larger and larger with his approach, and he swears that after this day, he’ll never shop there again. He’s going to buy toilet paper with two—no three!—three whole layers. Soft toilet paper. He’s done with these cheap ass-scratching rolls that feel like the paper towel in public restrooms. But what to do with 100 rolls? Could he leave the boxes in front of the doors of Bulk Blokes? No. There would be little satisfaction in that.
He zooms past the store in his Buick, weaving onto University Drive. He doesn’t know where he is going, but he can’t bring himself to stop just yet, no matter how much gas he is wasting. Not without figuring out what to do with that damn toilet paper in his back seat.
For a moment, he wonders if he is having the same kind of breakdown his mother had.
Would reality start to slip from him too? “Let it,” he grumbles. Nothing matters except for getting rid of that ass-scratching toilet paper.
Without realizing it, Jacob steers his little red car towards the green trimmed white house which he had been to earlier that day. He stops his car at the edge of the driveway and sizes up the house. The windows are dark, blinds shut to the front of the street. I guess when you’re old enough to shit yourself you need a little extra. Or in his case, a lot extra. He glares at the home and without pausing to kill the engine, hops out of his car and pulls out a roll of toilet paper from the backseat.
Jacob marches up the driveway, clutching the roll in his hand as if it is a weapon, a grenade that will blow everything all to hell. He stops immediately in front of the house and gazes up at it.
Slowly, he unravels the roll of toilet paper, pulling out 6 squares—exactly a days-worth, lovingly caressing it between his index finger and thumb as if it is a fine silk cloth.
Then he throws it at the house.
His arm isn’t what it used to be, but still the roll soars through the air, like a superhero with a cape flowing behind. It’s majestic the way the roll dances through the air as it unravels, flapping in a large arc until it lands on the roof of the garage with a gentle thump, leaving a long tail of white hanging behind.
Jacob smiles, goes back to his car and takes two more rolls. These he unravels and throws as well, white streamers of liberation arcing through the sky and draping over the porch and the tree of the green trimmed house. He throws it all away, the fear of hunger, the tightness in his chest, the loss of Susan, everything that has ever bogged him down takes the form of rough papery whiteness. He doesn’t even feel the arthritis in his elbows and wrists.
He grabs more and more until he loses count. Jacob feels like a child, but not the kind of child he was, concerned with figures and money. The kind of child he wished he could have been. Giddy and carefree like his sister who had climbed trees, chased chickens, and didn’t have to explain to their parents that they were going to lose their home.
He fills the darkened sky with his streamers of white, until his breathing is heavy and his arm begins to ache. The house, the tree, and the lawn are completely draped in toilet paper. The mess on the lawn isn’t intentional; he doesn’t have the strength he used to and the bombs didn’t always make it to the roof, but he enjoys the effect it has none the less. Jacob takes a step back and admires his handiwork; it is as if the yard and house have been covered by a poorly knitted blanket of white.
He hobbles back to his car to get more rolls and is surprised to find that in his excitement, he’s thrown over 50 rolls, 13,200 squares in total. The first box is empty, the second plum full and filled with opportunity. He considers opening the second box but thinks better of it. He’ll keep it. Not to be frugal, but for next time. Next time? The thought sends a childish jolt of glee through him.
Breathing heavy, elated by his rebellion, the toilet paper bandit leaves the empty cardboard box with the Bulk Blokes logo clearly printed on the sides on the driveway like the calling card of a master criminal.
He smiles as he climbs back into the car. He takes one last look at his work, and he knows that for the first time in his life, he’s wasted nothing.