“Blood and Water,” by Kelsey Ronan

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Nonfiction from Kelsey Ronan from our Spring 2016 issue. MQR 55:2 can be ordered for $7 or as part of an annual subscription.


After my grandfather retired from the assembly line, we used to take long drives around Flint together. Both ghost tour and history lesson, these drives showed me the city I’d been born into as well as the city Papa waxed nostalgic for. Riding past boarded windows and social service offices downtown, he drew lines in the air to show where the movie theater crowds had wrapped around the block on Saturday nights, pointed out the ritzy department stores where he bought dresses for my grandmother, and the point on the sidewalk where, walking toward the Flint River, you could begin to smell the doughnuts frying at Kresge’s. The working-class neighborhood where he’d grown up was long razed and the University of Michigan–Flint campus occupied its place. His first memory, he told me, was of playing with his brothers on a street that no longer existed and seeing a rainbow in a puddle of oil. A thrill of wonder moved through him that when he was older he learned to identify as beauty.

Years later, after Papa passed away and some of my friends and I forged adult lives elsewhere, my Flint tour evolved into a kind of morbid Christmas ritual. My friends and I would meet a few hours before Christmas Eve family gatherings and drive around the city listening to Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas. We looked for Flint at its worst: boarded up schools, houses scrapped so clean you could see through the kicked-in front doors to their backyards, trees of heaven sprouting up where cape cod roofs had sloughed onto front lawns, untended parks grown into prairies for urban deer, acres of empty land where Buick City, Chevy in the Hole, and AC Spark Plug had employed thousands.

Though the borders expanded year to year, these were parts of another city we sought out specifically, driving out of our way to find it. Through the rest of the break we’d meet up at Coney Islands and Middle Eastern restaurants on the west side business strips or at the bars of Flint’s gentrifying downtown. We’d sit around eating leftover Christmas cookies made by our parents, who were old enough to remember Flint at its “Generous Motors” height and disapproved of the way we drove around gawking. While we were fascinated with Flint’s decay, they were mournful and fearful of it. They didn’t understand our need to survey what of our hometown had been lost, what was receding into ruin and wilderness, and what might someday be unrecognizable—places we could point to and identify only through stories.

*

When my mother fell ill during the Flint water crisis, I drove five hundred miles from Saint Louis, my new home. My mother had been among the skeptics when in April 2014 the city switched its water source from Detroit’s system to the Flint River in an alleged effort to save money. Immediately residents complained of foul-smelling, sludgy water. A series of boil advisories were issued, but the state insisted the water was fine. While Mayor Walling and the state-appointed Emergency Financial Manager Darnell Earley appeared on television with glasses aloft, my mother refilled gallons of water at the supermarket and quietly dissented. We cooked two Thanksgiving dinners with bottled water. She wouldn’t even give tap water to the cats.

water fountain signBy summer 2015, pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha stated that children in Flint showed elevated levels of lead in their blood. Virginia Tech researchers debunked the state’s false test samples and led a GoFundMe to buy water filters for Flint. Dr. Karen Weaver won the mayoral election with the promise to have Flint declared in a state of emergency. An outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease killed ten people. My mother realized that despite two years of the burden of buying bottled water, she’d still been using tap water to fill the humidifier she sleeps beside to help her asthma and had been breathing in lead vapor all that time.

By February, not long after Governor Snyder and then President Obama signed emergency declarations, my mother complained to me on the phone that she felt relentlessly tired. Before leaving for work, driving a school bus in one of Flint’s more affluent suburbs, she used her nebulizer to fortify her lungs against the 5 AM Michigan cold, but still reached for her inhaler between runs. I nagged her to get tested for legionella. My mom and my sister Bunnie are the last of the family still living in Flint, and I longed for a battalion of aunts and uncles and grandparents to call and confer with, to dispatch to her house. Instead Bunnie monitored her and updated me via text, my mom occasionally coughing as she watched Downton Abbey, or ate salad, or read in bed.

Then, when she was dizzy and breathless at work one morning, her boss sped her to the emergency room, and I came home.

*

Watching the water crisis unfold from Saint Louis, it had been difficult to pare away the familiar Flint narrative for a clear image of what had happened and what was being done in response. A national media already primed by those Forbes “Worst Places” lists was ready to show Flint at its most ruined. This was Michigan’s Katrina, a disaster mismanaged by incompetent bureaucrats that would reduce an already vulnerable and underserved city to a city populated only by the last too poor to flee. References to Chernobyl recurred in articles illustrated with photographs of crying children with their sweater sleeves pushed up to receive the needles aimed at their veins, and kitchen sinks clogged with murky yellow water. On my Facebook feed friends were organizing protests and exchanging information about free blood testing locations, environmental defenses written on behalf of the mistreated Flint River, recipes for smoothies promising heavy metal detox, and articles identifying blame in the complicated network of EPA and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality officers, the City Hall officials Flint had voted for and those the governor had instated under the emergency financial manager law, and the governor himself. This was the end of Flint, the news insisted, yet no one I knew was leaving.

bar and grillBut my generation, Flint’s millennials, was taught early to be skeptical of anything someone tells us about our hometown. We grew up with our parents’ outrage over Michael Moore, who looked past them in Roger & Me to the extremes of oblivious country club socialites playing at Great Gatsby-themed parties and poor mothers thrown out of their homes on Christmas Eve, tree and all. We were raised to be defensive of anyone defining Flint and its problems for us.

I left Flint five years before the water crisis and was used to looking homeward through the surreal lens of one-sided doomsaying, like PolicyMic’s 2013 statistic-heavy profile of the city, “This is America’s Most Apocalyptic, Violent City—And You’ve Probably Never Heard Of It.” The article passed around Facebook and Twitter with well-practiced outrage swelling to righteous indignation. Being declared the end of the world was insult enough, but being accused of obscurity was the coup de grace. Flint is, after all, the birthplace of General Motors, where the 1936–37 Sit-Down Strike gave birth to the United Auto Workers, where Keith Moon drove a Cadillac into a swimming pool and earned the Who a lifelong ban from Holiday Inn. Flint readers, who know the precise shape of the city’s emptiness, quickly pointed out that the article’s photos of empty buildings and street-loitering kids crying out for afterschool programs weren’t even of Flint’s empty buildings and under-served children, but were stock photos from Detroit, and, inexplicably, Ramla, Israel.

Two years earlier when the New York Times declared Flint the murder capital of America, my sister Bunnie adopted “Murder City” as our honorific. As in, “Murder City Kelsey, wanna go to Grill of India?” and, addressing my mother’s fluffy white cat, “Get off the table, Murder City Walt Whitman!”

There’s a duality in Flint that makes it a difficult place to summarize. Call it a ghost town, and you will be reminded that yes, one hundred thousand people have left in the last thirty years, but one hundred thousand people still live there. Post another photo of a boarded and graffitied house and you’ll be informed people are reclaiming lots for urban farming, artist initiatives, and independent businesses. Bring up the food desert again and you’ll be directed toward a nationally ranked, year-round farmers’ market. While the outlying city suffers from blight and vacancy and big box stores have closed, Downtown Flint has a microbrewery, a 1920s-themed coffee shop that serves lattes under chandeliers and oil paintings of GM founder Billy Durant, a crepe shop that specializes in local organic fare, and a shoe cobbler that received national attention for its Kickstarter campaign for custom boots. See a city of tremendous loss but also of tenacious DIY vitality. See a city long betrayed by state politics and big business forging its own reinvention.

*

When I arrived back home, the first thing I noticed was the arsenal of water my mother had amassed. Cases of water were stacked under the kitchen table and gallon jugs stocked the fridge. She had every brand: Ice Mountain, Crystal Geyser, Nestle Pure Life, Poland Spring, Niagara bottles with R2D2 and C3P0 on them, and a selection of store brands. Since the emergency declaration she’d been taking what she could every time the Red Cross knocked at the door, or she spotted volunteers unloading U-Haul trucks in church parking lots.

Her hoarding wasn’t from greed but from an adaptation to the unknown and its grimmest potential forecast, akin to keeping a radio and batteries in your basement in case of a tornado. It could be five years before Flint’s pipes are fully replaced, and it’s only so long before the headlines and the donation trucks disappear.

My mom was home from the hospital, waiting for the results of a blood test. Her breathing had stabilized, but the ER doctor overdosed her on an inhalant and prescribed heavy doses of steroids that rendered her housebound. Wracked with panic attacks, unable to sleep or eat, she watched TV with my sister and fretted over her inability to focus on books.

a great placeWe hugged and I placed my usual Saint Louis offerings of beer and gooey butter cake on the counter. “You know that pretty yellow house on Bradley?” she asked.

As other neighborhoods have suffered arson and blight, our west side neighborhood has remained mostly stable. On one side of Miller Road columned mansions once home to General Motors executives curve around the golf course, and on our side cape cods and bungalows are neatly arranged between the elementary school and Sarginson Park. Having grown up on the city’s poorer south side, my mother had always wanted to live here in a house just like the one she now owned, and she took pride in this fact. She likes taking walks to admire favorite houses and feed the deer who now live on the golf course. I’d accompanied her on so many of those walks that I could summon a mental snapshot of the house instantly: dandelion yellow with white trim.

“It burned down.”

Houses in Flint were already plentiful and painfully cheap, their falling property tax revenues driving cuts to emergency services, schools, and libraries, and the seemingly interminable water crisis had raised new speculation. There were rumors that all homeowners would be responsible for replacing their own pipes—a price tag that, in many cases, would be higher than the value of the home. There were rumors that the toxicity of the water made home sales illegal, trapping the people who wanted out and barring the people who wanted in. My mom worried the yellow house was torched for the insurance money, and that it might be the beginning of a trend.

I tried not to panic. I’ve relied on the relative stability of my mom’s neighborhood for peace of mind, and arson a few blocks away scared me. To distract ourselves, we talked about the things we’d do once she felt up to it—Saturday at the farmers’ market, dinner at our favorite Lebanese places—and ran through the list of things she’d been unable to do while housebound: return library books, buy groceries, drop off her water sample.

My sister Bunnie came home from her waitressing shift, and I asked if she’d seen any celebrities lately. A few years ago it had been a big deal when Daniel Radcliffe was dating a girl who grew up in Flint and Harry Potter himself was spotted enjoying Christmas vacation in the Vehicle City. But since the state of emergency had been declared, celebrities had shown up regularly to deliver water and sign donation checks. Snoop Dogg tweeted pictures of himself hanging out with Mayor Weaver in his Flint Lives Matter tee. Macklemore chatted with twenty-somethings at a grubby downtown bar. Bernie and Hillary were set to debate in Flint before the Michigan primary, and some, like my mother, were unsettled by politicians using Flint’s crisis as a means of pushing agendas. Michael Moore was back in front of City Hall with a bull horn, and Flint was suspicious of being used for Roger & Me 2.

“The Seattle Seahawks were at the Soggy Bottom the other night,” Bunnie said. “But I was pissed off so I left.”

“Why?”

Bunnie scowled. “If someone had told me there was going to be an entire football team at the bar I would’ve spent more time on my eyeliner.”

We laughed. My mom picked at the gooey butter cake and we watched the news. The yellow house, its singed foundation and police tape sagging into the snow, flickered persistently in my head. The Flint outsiders said it looked like the apocalypse now encroached on the Flint where my family read novels and watched PBS.

I kept getting distracted by a strange light flashing through the window above the television. A helicopter, it appeared, was circling slowly over the rooftops of our neighborhood. Was there a murderer on the loose or something? I asked my mom.

“Oh, that thing’s been around so long I’ve quit noticing it. It’s a state police patrol. They fly it around on the weekends.”

“Does it work?” I asked.

My mom laughed in response. “I’ve never felt safer.”

*

After a few days back home it was clear that my mother’s water-collecting paranoia wasn’t hers alone, but a pervasive feeling that had unsettled the city. Dystopian black and yellow billboards reminded citizens in English and Spanish that BOILING YOUR WATER DOES NOT REMOVE LEAD. Water fountains at the library and the YMCA were wrapped in garbage bags and duct tape. Apartment complex banners that used to promise pet friendliness and move-in specials now assured you wouldn’t be poisoned if you moved in—“We Have Detroit Water!” Still no timetable existed for getting shovels in the ground and replacing pipes, only the day-to-day relief and the shifting swells of outrage and grief.

Flint had reason to believe it would be forsaken entirely: that if General Motors had sacked Flint, the Snyder administration was scorching the earth. On the phone with friends who like me had left or in the living rooms and at bar tables with friends who had stayed, we worried and grieved. It was difficult to believe that the government would spend millions on pipes in neighborhoods where inhabited and inhabitable houses were randomly scattered. Flint had been declared a ghost town thirty years ago, and now it seemed a prophecy to be soon fulfilled.

boiling your water.2JJ and Amber had both moved into Flint from the suburbs and were fierce in their Flint pride. They bought a HUD house in Mott Park and raised chickens in their backyard. Champions of urban agriculture, Flint’s expanding bike trail system, and downtown businesses, they were vigilant about even what gas stations and supermarkets they went to, reluctant to spend money outside the city limits. Over black bean burgers from a new shop downtown that specialized in Michigan-made products, JJ told me he worried Flint might be dissolved into the county.

Sue had recently moved back to Flint from Ann Arbor and was so heartsick about the water crisis that she’d exiled herself from social media. She worked at a health food store on the eastern outskirts of town, and said that once the bus hit Dort Highway and Center Road she kept her head down, reading, to ignore the empty buildings passing through the window. In her kitchen, she laid out a selection of tea bags from her work and explained what roots and herbs might help my mom’s lungs.

My mom stopped taking the steroids and began to feel calmer, but the thought of leaving the house still triggered panic attacks for reasons she couldn’t identify. “There’s nothing wrong,” she kept insisting. “There’s no reason I should feel this way.”

But around us, plenty was wrong. Mayor Weaver abruptly fired the police chief and the city administrator because, she explained briefly on the five o’clock news, Flint needed fresh ideas. The NAACP announced protests would begin if pipes weren’t being laid in thirty days. Fire fighters showed news anchors how the water was corroding their hoses. Lawsuits launched and the tiny victims appeared on television, their solemn parents explaining drops in grades, behavioral problems, rashes, and stunted growth. The evidence mounted that Governor Snyder’s staff knew about the water a year before Flint was declared an emergency. Emails showed bottled water discreetly delivered to City Hall a year ago.

There was plenty, I argued, to panic over.

*

On Saturday mornings my mom listens to Maurice Davis’s Blues and News on the college radio station. Maurice spins old school R & B songs between conversations about Flint with his callers, and he’s the first person my mother heard outline the idea of Flint seizing the water crisis as a comeback. A huge WPA-style project could put hundreds of Flint citizens back to work. Money would be pumped back into the city, houses would be bought. With a successful mayor and a major engineering initiative, Flint could reverse its reputation and become a progressive symbol of Rust Belt revitalization. We wouldn’t be the Murder City Ronans anymore.

While my mom and I discussed the water crisis, we circled back to Governor Snyder and the legal fate awaiting him. Even before journalists and investigators started combing through Snyder’s emails, my mom had been thinking a great deal about where he was leading Michigan and what would become of him. My mom had been a part of the effort to recall Snyder soon after he was elected. Under his “one tough nerd” mission to balance the state budget, her union was forced to make concessions or be hired back by a private company for half the pay. In those concessions she lost her health care, and now faced a three-thousand-dollar emergency room bill for asthma complications Snyder’s toxic water had caused.

“What do you think will happen to him?” I asked.

There was no anger in her voice, but weary resignation. “I think like Tom and Daisy he’ll retreat back into his money,” she said.

I searched my memory for the names of MDEQ employees and state officials who’d resigned in the last weeks, then realized my mother was using F. Scott Fitzgerald to remind me the rich have been ruining the lives of the poor for much longer than Snyder had been letting people in Flint drink lead.

*

As my mom and I ventured out together to the grocery store and the post office, I grew restless and guilty. She’d be back to work in another week and I’d return to Saint Louis. For all Flint suffered during the water crisis, my plight was minor. The annoyance of pouring bottled water into the coffee machine. The little red rashes that would flare briefly on my arms when I stayed too long in the shower.

I read about protests in front of Snyder’s home in Ann Arbor an hour’s drive south of Flint, and asked Bunnie if she’d go yell on the sidewalk with me.

In Flint’s North End, Air Force veteran and General Motors retiree Ollie Sutton had flown a flag upside down throughout the water crisis. She explained to the news anchor that the flag should be displayed with union down as a distress signal. Bunnie and I used one board as homage to Sutton, filling in the stripes with painstaking marker strokes and a sheet of star stickers my mom uses to reward her well-behaved kindergarten passengers. I bemoaned my shoddy sign until Bunnie pointed out, “I don’t think Snyder’s going to look out his window and be like, well I would feel shitty about poisoning that city but that sign is janky.”

flint.lives.matterOn Ann Arbor’s Main Street, about forty mostly middle-aged, mostly white protestors cocooned in coats and wooly hats milled in front of a store that sells jewelry and tchotchkes fashioned from rocks and minerals. Upstairs Governor Snyder inhabits a $1.4 million condo—about as far a psychic distance from Flint as possible.

We gripped homemade signs taped to hockey sticks and chanted “Flint Lives Matter! Water is a Human Right!” The first shouts startled me—I’d never stood on a street and shouted, nor had to declare that my family doesn’t deserve to be poisoned. I looked over to Bunnie and saw we were both willing ourselves not to cry, furrowing our eyebrows and swallowing.

The weirdness of it quickly diverted us from despair and sentiment. A bulldog lunged out of the circle to vomit a stream of milky white goo and his owner, in yoga pants and oversized sunglasses declared, “There’s a little gift for Tricky Rick!” A protestor in knee pads hurried from corner to corner writing messages for Snyder in sidewalk chalk (while “You enjoying your clean water up there, Rick?” icily cast blame, a quote from The Tempest—“Hell is empty and all the devils are here”—elevated Snyder from corrupt asshole to one of timeless literary proportion).

A woman old enough to be our grandmother waved Bunnie and me out of the throng so she could play us a rap song from Detroit she declared “just terrific.” She’d plugged an antique MP3 player into a boom box and we strained to make out the lyrics over the percussion of the rattling milk jugs and the protestors chanting for Snyder to drink the water. Over a plaintive piano, DMT repeated, “They want us to get out the city. I know that they do.” We promised to YouTube it later for closer study.

At the end of the protest, the sidewalk chalk activist gathered us into a huddle.

“I’ve talked to mothers up there in Flint, and they’re not sleeping at night. Two years those poor people have been living without clean water.” My sister and I exchanged half-hidden smirks at the first startling They. Two white twenty-somethings holding our homemade Flint Lives Matter signs, they didn’t realize they were talking about us. We didn’t look like the photographs in all the doomsday articles.

“I’ll keep chalking,” she said, with a kind of “by any means necessary” defiance. Nods and thank-yous rippled through the protestors, protest signs propped on the sidewalk. Bunnie and I looked to each other, both amused and touched. I tried to imagine Snyder glowering behind the drawn curtains above.

Was he up there, as I wanted him to be, wracked with guilt and worry? Was he simply relieved we’d stopped? Had he heard us at all?

*

Following the water crisis from Saint Louis I’d seen the pictures of Snyder, grimly standing in front of the state seal, so many times his face had transcended familiarity and become a symbol, like the water bottles full of cloudy yellow tap water, and the white bulb of the Flint water tower. When Bunnie, our friend Dominic, and I were sent to the water plant by the Red Cross, Dominic spoke for all of us when he slammed his car door and proclaimed, “Here we are at Ground Zero.”

In an office cluttered with stacks of paper and walls lined with maps and calendars, one of the women told us there was nowhere to put all three of us, and not enough to do.

“If you came last week I’d have had all kinds of things for you to do, all kinds of phone calls for you to make,” she said, as if the circus had just taken down the big top and left town.

Dominic asked if, before we headed back to the Red Cross offices, we could look around. “I grew up around here. I always wondered what it was like inside.”

Unfazed, she shrugged. “Just stay on the first floor.”

The avocado tile and chlorine smell triggered memories of my high school. Though from somewhere we could hear a constant mechanical hum, there was no water here, no workers. The reservoirs were dry. A plaque on the wall proclaimed the building was erected in 1954, “dedicated to the health and welfare of this community.”

Dominic used to be a graffiti artist, and he’s more intrepid than Bunnie and I. It was Dominic who spotted the personnel-only door leading down into the basement and pushed it open, peering inside. With a swift check over his shoulder, he waved for us to follow him, easing the door closed behind us.

We crept through the shadowy concrete maze of the water plant. Yellow guard rails kept us back from the huge pipes snaking through the system and the control boxes of levers and buttons. Dominic pointed out the pipes carrying in the Lake Huron water from Detroit’s system, explaining the mechanics of it all. I only half-listened, afraid of getting chewed out by staff bound to come around the bend any moment now.

The next week, when I was back in Saint Louis, Reverend Jesse Jackson would lead thousands of people on a mile-long march from an East Side Baptist church to the water plant, and I’d watch it on the news. Their signs and Flint Lives Matter tees.

But just then we slipped back up the stairs, and waved goodbye to the woman in the office. At the Red Cross we entered data while volunteers rolled up recycling kits behind us. Red Cross water deliverers returned spreadsheets listing the address of every home they visited, whether the resident had water filters installed and how many cases of water they were given. How many children lived at the property, how many disabled individuals, and if they were unable to go out and pick up water. There were notations to mark abandoned houses and potential hazards to deliverers.

I created little black dots on the map and filled drop-down menus with the notes. I paused over streets I didn’t recognize, zooming out until main roads crossed into view and I searched my memory. Did I know anyone from here? Had I been there on the drives with Papa, or with my friends? I made the necessary notations for children in houses hemmed in on either side by vacant houses, and wondered about the differences between their Flint stories and mine.

*

The kitchen door opened and my mother came in with an empty birdseed bag in her fist, her cheeks bright with cold, stomping snow onto the doormat. Bunnie and I were drinking homemade mango and chia seed smoothies at the kitchen table with an issue of Vogue between us, making fun of dresses we couldn’t afford.

“There’s a man out there shoveling the driveway,” my mom said.

It’s not unusual in our neighborhood for people to go door to door offering their shoveling services after a heavy snowfall. “I said I’d get the snowblower out in a minute,” Bunnie reminded her.

“I already told him to stop. He said he’s trying to make some money to pay for his prescriptions. He said he just got out of the hospital for breathing trouble. He said he was in the hospital for an asthma attack and needs an inhaler and prednisone.”

She hurried past us before we could respond, and returned with the needed medicines in either hand: her inhaler prescription that had just been refilled, and the prednisone she’d stopped taking.

My sister and I went to the window and angled to get an inconspicuous view of him. A white guy, maybe in his thirties, wearing a puffy blue coat and gripping a plastic snow shovel. I’d long worried about my mom living alone and people casing the house. Six years ago she woke to the sound of shattering glass and a hand coming through, feeling for the front doorknob. She shouted and the hand withdrew—she pulled back the curtain and watched him run across the snow, leaving his boot prints in her yard. A few summers ago she returned from a walk and found the bench in the backyard had been dragged beneath the dining room window.

“What did you tell him?” I asked, too quickly. “You didn’t say you live by yourself.”

“I told him I’d see if we could help him.”

She took a Sharpie from the drawer and slashed through all identifying information on the bottles. “Isn’t this strange?” she repeated. Bunnie and I brainstormed the worst case scenarios. There’s no street value in albuterol and steroids. It wasn’t as if she were giving him painkillers.

Bunnie and I stayed at the window while our mom shooed the shovel out of the man’s hands and extended the medicines to him. We watched as he trailed her to the garage, where, among gardening tools and Christmas lawn decorations she stores empty Diet Coke cans to be recycled at the supermarket for the ten cent deposits—a kind of Michigan currency. Our mom returned to the warmth of the kitchen, unwinding her scarf, her eyes fretful. She took her place beside us, and we watched the man trudge down the driveway with twelve packs of empty Diet Coke cans under his arms.

“Was that the right thing to do?” she asked. She worried over his bad lungs in this bitter cold. How far he might have to go. And how strange it was that fate had flung him into her driveway.

“Is this a coincidence,” she asked us. “Or is this God?”

“I don’t know,” I said, though I didn’t believe it was either.

*

Back in Saint Louis, I had nightmares for weeks. In one, Flint had been evacuated and all its citizens were crammed on a giant ship moving down the Flint River. From the deck, I saw abandoned houses with front doors hanging open, lawns strewn with clothes and furniture. Cars pushed into the river bobbed useless and unsunk. In other dreams I wandered through empty factories and apartment complexes, startled at the strange animal shapes the mold and debris had mutated into.

But the news was shifting from images of calamity to resilience and action. On the news the Chernobyl references abated, and the first new pipes went into the ground. Bernie and Hillary debated on the stage Bunnie had scampered across as a chubby mouse in The Nutcracker twenty years ago, and the disenfranchised people of Flint stood up demanding justice and accountability. Because I’m a Flint girl, though, my skepticism was too well-honed. I knew to be suspicious of anyone’s narrative about my hometown, even when the news wasn’t a forecast of a Rust Belt Armageddon.

My mom was back to work, her bloodwork confirming no strains of legionella and her panic attacks subsiding. She kept me updated on her chats with the nice men of the National Guard who delivered her water and sent fist-pumping emojis when Mayor Weaver declared Flint residents would no longer be billed for unusable water. A petition to recall Governor Snyder was set to circulate, and there was a thrill moving through Flint that maybe he wouldn’t be allowed to retreat back into his money after all.

She texted me, “Now every time that helicopter goes by the window I think of you.”

I wondered if she was teasing me, unsure I liked being associated with the state police flying in slow circles over Murder City. “Is that a good thing?” I texted back.

“Of course,” she wrote. “It feels good to remember you coming home.”

under restoration

All photos courtesy of the author.

Kelsey RonanKELSEY RONAN grew up in Flint, Michigan. Her fiction and journalism have appeared in Indiana Review, Cream City Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Belt Magazine, Michigan Quarterly Review, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She lives in Saint Louis, where she coordinates Grand Boulevard Workshops, a creative writing outreach program. She serves as the fiction editor for River Styx.

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