“Mr. J and the Croton Aqueduct” by Shennaiya Rose, Lincoln High school

My boy is sick, he vomited twice since his papa left for work. That was two hours ago when his papa kissed his head and held his hand while whispering something under his breath.

He must be praying for our boy to get better. He couldn’t look me in the eyes before he left. I understood, the silence was enough. We have seen this twice before with our girl and her grandmother before they left us for the abode of the blessed. If I remember correctly, first came the tummy aches, second came the fatigue and the vomit, I forget the rest but if you skip a few other symptoms, we always end the same, death. The rancid smell would not leave, no matter how long I stayed on the floor scrubbing with grandmother’s old head wrap or how many times I washed the sheets. The smell came out, eventually, my fingers felt raw but at least the smell was gone.

The sterile smell that was left made me nauseous, it didn’t smell like home. Grandmother's stew was the smell of home not the smell of sickness and death. I can imagine the taste in this moment, the taste of good chicken. Not the chicken we find in cans but the kind that was plucked up right from the farm straight onto our dinner plates. But that is only a pipe dream, we are not like Mr. J. The state of New York and Mr. J are why we are currently stable. Mr. J is mysterious to me, my husband comes home covered in dirt, mud, dried leaves and other things I could not identify, because the first things that leaves his mouth are how he saw the back of Mr. J’s head today or how Mr. J’s expensive work boot left a print in the mud or how Mr. J invited some of the workers for a drink over by the pub two nights ago. Mr. J is mysterious to me, mysterious in the way that I must wonder why he is constantly plaguing my husband's mind. I eventually found out in the morning why it is that my husband cares so much about Mr. J, my husband feels indebted to him because in past jobs he earned forty cents less. My husband wants to show his gratitude to Mr. J by mailing him a nice card with a kind note inside. He must be out of his mind, buying a nice card cost money but mailing costs something that we could not possibly afford with our boy being sick.

Our boy is sick because of the water; it's dirty because of how much trash and waste is being thrown in our water source. That water that I give my boy is dirty, how can I possibly make up for that as a mother, after all our family went through to get here, the land of opportunity, just for it all to end because of dirty water. I complained to my husband, but he says the water aqueduct is almost finished, he keeps on saying, “...in a few months my love.” I've seen it in the newspapers, it's supposed to be big and complex, starts from the Croton River here in Westchester County and travels forty miles to Manhattan. My husband is proud that he worked on this project that would help better the life of our boy and the other children of our neighbors. At nighttime after another vomiting and cleaning session and my boy constantly asking for water, I put him to bed. I'm tired, I go to bed to seek the comfort of my husband, but the word that left his mouth next sent me into a fit of rage. What did he say? “Mr. J...” I was getting more tired listening to that man’s name constantly being mentioned in our home. Did he live here? No. Does he know my son’s name? No. My daughter's name? No. Mr. J does not even know the name of my husband. He just looks at me with this look of disappointment, he then tells me, “Two months.” We made a promise to each other when our boy first started getting sick, we told each other we would never lose hope, but I lied, I couldn't be hopeful after our girl left us. I tried though.

The day came, the day that would lead to a big improvement in the way of life for the people of New York. The Croton Aqueduct provided clean water for New York and the children of our neighbors. Someone caught my eye; it was Mr. J or that was what my husband called him, I never cared to ask what his full name was. Many people were credited for the creation of the Croton Aqueduct, but I finally learned who Mr. J really was, John B. Jervis was his name. My boy would’ve been happy to see such a magnificent structure that his papa helped to build. I would like to think that he is probably discussing with his sister and grandmother the idea of the Croton Aqueduct in the abode of the blessed.  

“Old Croton Aqueduct State Historic Park.” Parks.ny.gov, parks.ny.gov/parks/oldcrotonaqueduct/ Accessed 15 Feb. 2024.