The Toilet Paper Man
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Jerry and his family lived on the edge of Chinatown, as a result the Mexican-American culture he was being raised within being quite influenced by their neighbors from the Far East. On one corner there sat a traditional Mexican bakery, with its massive pieces of hanging Chicharron and sweet aroma of freshly baked sweet breads, the latter of which would be his breakfast on the way to school just about every weekday, while Sun Wong Kee graced the opposite side of the street. A Chinese corner store that had everything from freshly cooked cuisine to exotic items imported directly from the motherland. It is here where Jerry and his friends would stop and get their afternoon snacks after that final bell at El Dorado Elementary had rang, kids pouring out onto the sidewalks and heading off in all directions in excitement as they headed for the magical few hours of free play they had before dinner time.
And so Jerry and his friends would stand out in front of Sun Wong Kee every day just after 3 PM deciding what to do while munching on their treats, some peeling off flaky layers of butter roll wafers with their teeth until they got to its core while others would send their tongues into chaos with sweet-and-sour suckers. Jerry leaned more towards the flaky wafers, envisioning unraveling a scroll as he made his way around the butter roll to its center as if doing this would tell him what the next few hours would bring about. Kind of like his own personal version of a fortune cookie. But today’s message was not coming about so clearly, his friends yet to arrive and thus leaving him standing alone near the corner of the corner store. He only noticed where he was standing when he caught sight of The Toilet Paper Man in the corner of his eye, not realizing he had ventured so far while peeling and pondering.
The Toilet Paper Man; a crazy old man as much of a part of the neighborhood as the street signs, the small businesses, the familiar faces always coming and going. All part of what Jerry had grown up around, and yet this was the closest he had ever gotten to the old man, especially alone. Why he was called The Toilet Paper Man was obvious, no one ever seeing him without it twisted up in his nose and ears, as much of the old man’s face as the long mustache and beard he never cut. Always seated in the same spot in front of Sun Wong Kee, everyone keeping their distance as he mumbled to himself day in and day out, not a single one of them daring to get too close, and yet here now stood Jerry, so near they could practically start a conversation, and that’s exactly what happened.
“Left you alone today, huh?” The Toilet Paper Man said all of a sudden.
A little startled Jerry had to take a moment to process this. Not only because the old man was actually talking to him, but also the fact that the voice coming from that hidden mouth covered in hair and the edges of toilet paper actually had an American accent. He and his friends had always assumed The Toilet Paper Man was Chinese, most likely because of where he permanently sat.
“Um– yeah,” Jerry finally responded. “Maybe they had to do something with their parents.”
“All of them, at the same time?” The Toilet Paper Man said.
Jerry had to admit his theory didn’t make sense, feeling a triad of awkward, nervous, and somewhat intrigued that he was really talking to The Toilet Paper Man. Wait till his friends –
“I too used to eat those butter rolls when I was your age,” the old man said.
This brought up a new emotion in Jerry, one of relatability.
“This store has been around that long?”
“Generations,” the old man replied.
Jerry wanted to ask what happened. When had he become homeless. Why the constant toilet paper. Of course inhibition prevented him from asking such, but not before two words slipped out. The only two words The Toilet Paper Man needed to answer.
“I once ran the streets just like you. Building forts, riding my bike through alleyways, trying to catch a quick glimpse up a skirt or two. But then one day these little creatures started to invade my head. They were like fire ants, but once they got inside and buried there fangs deep within they were more like fire-breathing dragons, burning my brain from the inside out.
“You ever felt a burn? From a stove? Against the exhaust pipe of a revved up motorcycle? An excruciating pain that feels like it sears you to the bone. Times that by a million, from the inside out. That’s how it felt.”
Jerry’s interest was now captured, he turning around to face The Toilet Paper Man. “You mean you were attacked by some kind of insects?”
He still had another butter roll, and offered this last wafer to the old man. “You still eat these?”
“Here you go.”
Jerry couldn’t help but smile a little when The Toilet Paper Man began to eat the wafer in the same way he did, unraveling the scroll one flaky layer at a time. The old man went on.
“They weren’t insects. It was already inside. My dad explained that it was a dark curse that was passed from father to son within our family. His father had it, and his father, and his father. No one really knew where it came from, but it was a disease of the mind no doctor could really cure.
“At first I thought the images of the tiny fire-breathing dragons were born out of the severe pain I had started to fill, but the so-called experts said it was the other way around. That delusions and hallucinations produced chemical effects in my brain that made me feel what I was feeling. But these same experts had no way of taming the dragons, my father soon giving up the fight by taking his own life and leaving me to the battle alone.”
Engaged to the point of forgetting all else around him Jerry could only stare as the unraveling of The Toilet Paper Man’s butter roll scroll continued to tell him the story.
“I only lived a few blocks away from here,” the old man went on, “and like you would come into the store just about every day. I liked the smell of the roasted duck. I could hardly ever afford to buy it, but yeah, that smell. It seemed to ease the pain a little, like a salve.
“One day they got a shipment of dragon figurines in, and I remember they displayed them right across from the toilet paper aisle. Mind you, during this time they’d play old kung fu movies on TV, some of which had mythical storylines with dragons and such. I saw this as a sign, a clue, having to decipher the hidden meanings in my life much like the characters in the movies had to do.
“One of these movies involved the main character setting out to learn a style of kung fu with techniques that were as light as a feather, needing to learn the lesson of Yin and Yang in order to defeat the dragon. That’s when it had occurred to me. The universe had shown me in plain sight what I had to do in order to stop my own tiny fire-breathing dragons, and so I came here to the store the next day and bought a pack of toilet paper. As soon as I plugged up the four exposed holes that my mind had told me were the entrance points of my enemies I felt instant relief,
“I know, it doesn’t make sense, but mental illness hardly ever does. All I know is what works for me.”
Jerry was still at the age of not yet completely having lost that honest nature of being a child, and so again he had said the words before he could stop himself.
“What about the rest of your family? Are they also –“
“Crazy?” The Toilet Paper Man finished for him. “I only have a sister, and thankfully as my father said the disease only goes to the males. So no, she was spared. And as far as I know her two boys never got it either. I don’t see them much, which is probably for the best. Wouldn’t want to disturb their lives. This is why I chose never to have children of my own. How could I ever risk passing on such an inflicting way of life.”
Again with his honesty, Jerry asked, “Who are you talking with when you’re sitting here alone?”
“I have my moments of clarity, which is why I am able to talk to you now. But most of the time I’m battling my dragons. The tissue keeps them out, for the most part anyway, but there’s never a time when they’re not trying to invade.”
A new emotion arose in Jerry, this one of empathy, making him want to cry for the suffering this man had to endure.
Just then he heard the sound of familiar voices approaching, led by excitement and rushing over to him they couldn’t tell their tale fast enough of how they had come upon a bloody car crash. So hyped up on adrenaline they had failed to notice Jerry conversing with The Toilet Paper Man, now leading their friend away as they went on and on in gruesome detail about what they had seen.
Jerry looked back at the old man, his last emotion being that of feeling lost, for what could he do, only being a kid and all, to help? It was a feeling that was new to him and one he would rather have done without, but life seemed to be full of introducing him to new feelings at this age. Hardened truths about it that he had no choice but to learn about if he were to go on living it. And so he began to understand another lesson; acceptance. To some extent anyway.
For a couple of days he tried to avoid Sun Wong Kee, convincing his friends to meet up elsewhere. But soon they were back on their old stomping grounds, once again stuffing their pockets with foreign treats while The Toilet Paper Man mumbled in the background. Life appeared to be back on track of the daily routine of no worries and new discoveries, but no more than a week had passed before one day Jerry’s life took a sharp U-turn. This time he had been the one a few minutes late to their meet up spot, arriving to find his friends chuckling up a storm near the stores outside bathroom around back. At first he thought they were teasing someone inside who was doing their business, but then he saw pieces of toilet paper dangling from their pockets. Over-stuffed pockets. That’s all he had to see to know what was going on.
To confirm Jerry pushed open the bathroom door and sure enough found an empty toilet paper roll hanging by the toilet. He rushed back out demanding of his friends, “What did you do?! Where is he?!”
Without waiting for their replies Jerry ran back around to the front of the store to see The Toilet Paper Man’s spot vacant, blaring horns now drawing his attention to the nearby intersection. And there he was, the old man in the center of chaos, both amidst the traffic and his own, flailing his hands all about as if swatting at tiny fire-breathing dragons.
Jerry ran into Sun Wong Kee and grabbed a single roll of tissue from a shelf before throwing a dollar bill atop the cashier’s counter and running out. By now traffic was at a standstill, the boy rushing through it with a fast-beating heart since he could no longer see the old man. That is until he finally got to the middle of the intersection, The Toilet Paper Man lying on his back, not from being hit by a car but rather still busy at trying to fight away his dragons.
Jerry quickly ripped the paper off the single roll tissue and two squares at a time began to tear them away, twist them up and shove them into the ears and nostrils of the old man. “It’s okay, you’re okay…” He was now on the ground beside him, holding that small face of big beard and tissue in his lap, a sight he could never have imagined just a week ago. Soon The Toilet Paper Man began to calm down, his delusion dissipating into reality and in so doing looking up at the one who had come to his aid. That look in his eyes, of being saved, of being rescued from a darkness most could never even imagine, was a look Jerry would never forget.
Now surrounded by police, a fire truck and an ambulance Jerry helped The Toilet Paper Man stand to his feet, a paramedic already there to assist him onto a gurney. Once the old man had been strapped in the boy placed the roll of tissue into his hands, his young mind’s eye capturing forever that look of gratitude before him. A look that would drive him to one day become a psychiatrist and help those with similar needs.