Red Pop and Ritalin


I want to say it was Scott who—back in the seventh grade—stole his mom’s Valium, his father’s coke, his older brother’s weed, and his younger brother’s Ritalin. I want to say it was Scott who once, before Woodshop, put a dot in his eye and slipped into his own world for the afternoon. I want to say it was Scott who walked around school high and drank Red Pop from a glass bottle. I want to say it was Scott who did all of these things, but it could have been Jason.


I thought it was called Red Dye No. 9.

Maybe it was just the poetics of the phrase, “Red Dye No. 9.” Or maybe I confused the red food color with The Beatles’ “Revolution #9… #9#9.”

It wasn’t Red Dye No. 9, after all. It was Red Dye No. 2 that was banned in 1976.



The names here have all been changed. Though I am not sure if it matters.



Before ADD was a thing, there was unruly. Before ADHD, there was excitable, distracted, and undisciplined. There was rambunctious, rowdy, wild, and unrestrained.



They laugh at you, Scott and Jason, and they shove you in that way only friends get to do. And they throw M&M’s at you. They say, “You’re a fucking idiot.” They say, “You’re fucking retarded.” They say, “You don’t know what you’re fucking talking about.” They say fuck a lot.

But you know you are right. You deflect the candy. You shove back. You say, “I’m fucking serious, guys.” You say, “The fucking green ones taste just like the fucking yellow ones. Just like the fucking orange ones.” You say, “Only the tan M&M’s taste fucking different.” You also say fuck a lot.



In seventh grade, the boys took Woodshop and the girls took Home Economics.



After Soviet scientists claimed that there was a link between Red Dye No. 2 and cancer, the FDA stated the results were inconclusive but the dye could not be presumed to be safe for human consumption. The FDA then banned Red Dye No. 2.



When we were kids, Scott wasn’t allowed to eat red candy and he couldn’t drink Red Pop. His mom would say to my mom, “It makes him rambunctious. If he eats anything with red dye, he gets excitable. He gets rowdy.” In seventh grade, Scott drank Red Pop every day.



In case I am wrong—simply switch Jason’s name with Scott’s.



One day you are friends, the two of you, acting wild in the woods with the slingshots you built in Woodshop. But then time passes and later he is just another face in the sea of faces. You don’t see him. You drift down the hall—distracted—day after day, year after year. You don’t even realize he’s gone.



In school, the teachers did not like Scott. They would yell, “Control yourself.” They would sit him facing a corner—away from the class. They would send him from the room—to the principal.

Outside of school, Scott was unrestrained. On the swings, he would pump his legs to get as high as he could. He would climb the tallest of trees. Scott loved getting high. At the peak of height, Scott would jump. Every time, he landed on his feet.



I’m pretty sure I’m right, though. I knew Scott’s two brothers, sort of. And I barely knew Jason. He was from a different neighborhood. He just sat next to us in Woodshop and then we were sort of friends.



In Woodshop, we were supposed to make napkin holders. A napkin holder required us to use the radial arm saw, the drill press, the lathe, the belt sander, hand files, sandpaper, wood stain, and wax. Instead, using these same tools, we made slingshots.



It’s weird when it happens, when you bump into that kid from school—except he hasn’t been that kid for a long time. You don’t recognize him anymore, but he comes up to you at the bar and says, “Jesus, what’s it been? Twenty years?” You both drink a few beers and he tells you about the reunion you missed—ticking off who is fat, who is divorced, and who is dead. Except you know he has some of these things wrong.



Jason used his slingshot to shoot bent nails at us from across the room. The nails pinged against the saws, stain cans, and lockers. When you got hit, it hurt. So when I saw Jason take a far shot, I jumped away from the oncoming nail and knocked Scott’s Red Pop from the workbench. It smashed on the floor. Scott and I both received detention. Scott got his for having glass bottles in the shop. Me, I got detention for unruly and undisciplined behavior. Jason walked away without punishment.

That day, walking home from detention, Scott and I took a shortcut through the woods. Using our slingshots, we fired M&M’s at whatever moved—squirrels, birds, garter snakes. We even took shots at the three sixth-graders smoking their first cigarettes. M&M’s don’t hurt—not like bent nails.



Ritalin is the brand name for methylphenidate and is classified by the DEA as a Schedule II narcotic. This is the same classification as cocaine, morphine, and amphetamines. “Street names” for Ritalin are Diet Coke, Kiddie Coke, R-ball, Rids, Skittles, Smarties, and Vitamin R.



According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, red food coloring—known as Red Dye No. 40—is the most commonly used dye in the U.S. It is synthetically derived from petroleum and is widely believed to cause hyperactivity in children. The dye was approved by the FDA for use in candy, beverages, cereal, baked goods, gelatin powder, drugs, and cosmetics.



Mr. Lewis claimed he told us, “Today is the last day to turn in your projects.” He claimed to have said, “If you don’t turn in your work today, you will get a zero. You will fail Woodshop.” He said, “I have been warning you for two weeks now.” We told him he was wrong. We told him he never said that. We loved watching his face get red.



Still, I could be wrong. Jason was a bragger—he could have told me about his brothers and their drugs. It might have been Jason who did that line of coke by the lathe. It might have been Jason who kept a few joints hidden in his toolbox.



At the end of seventh grade, the district closed our junior high. They merged us with the district’s other junior high—several miles away. Though we never spoke again, Jason would later appear in my sophomore year history class. That last day of Woodshop—that was the last time I ever saw Scott.



Faygo uses Red Dye No. 40 in their Red Pop.



Scott said, “Sand this.” He handed me a pile of wood—cut and drilled blocks and short dowel rods.  “Okay, but which piece is for what?” I asked.

“Just sand them. I have to cut these.” Scott was on fire. He had three projects to build and I had two. We had 30 minutes left in class and it was starting to look like we just might make it. I walked over to our bench and dragged sandpaper across the surface of a block—smoothing the edges.

Before I finished the first block, Scott returned with two odd-shaped pieces and tossed them on the table. “Sand these, too,” he said. He took the blocks and the dowels from my pile. “I’ll be back,” he said.

Ten minutes later, Scott returned, holding two assembled napkin holders. “Sand faster,” he said. There was an urgent energy in his voice. “Dude, what the fuck?” I said.

“We have fifteen minutes left and we have to stain. Sand faster.” I sanded faster. He sanded really fast. We scooped up our projects and headed to the stain table. “Dude,” I asked, “what did you take?”

“Stain,” he said.

“Did you take speed or something?”

“Stain,” he said. “We are not going to fail Woodshop.” We stained. We cleaned our brushes and turned our projects in. As we left Woodshop, Scott said, “You can’t tell anyone.” He said, “I jacked my brother’s Ritalin.”



According to Mars, Inc., M&M’s never contained Red Dye No. 2. However, due to the public concerns, they replaced the red M&M’s with orange in 1976. In 1987, once the red panic had passed, red M&M’s were reintroduced using Red Dye No. 40.



I want to say it was Scott who, back in the twelfth grade, gave up the drugs. I want to say it was Scott who got his shit together, joined the track team, and planned to go to college. I want to say it was Scott who—in the weeks just after graduation—went out for a run one evening and was struck and killed by a car. I want to say it was Scott who did all of these things, but it could have been Jason.



You think you have it right—but there you both are. Sitting at the bar, you talk about Red Pop and Ritalin. You talk about Scott and Jason. “Dude,” he says, “you got it wrong. Scott lives in Utah or Idaho or some shit.” He orders another round and says, “Jason is dead.” You say, “But it was in the paper, front page.” You drink the rest of your beer and say, “I read it.”

J. R. MILLER is the author of Nobody’s Looking (ELJ Editions) and his work also appears in Midwestern Gothic, Palooka, Writers Tribe Review, Prick of the Spindle, Mojave River Review, Prime Number and others. He is the Co-Founding editor of (ĕm): A Review of Text and Image, production editor for Sweet Publications, and teaches creative writing in Florida. You can visit his website at