Wednesday's Child

Prose, including snippets (mini-memoirs).
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Wednesday's Child

Post by sasha » October 3rd, 2020, 4:52 pm

A writers' collective in southwestern New Hampshire has just published an anthology of sketches from the earliest days of the Covid-19 outbreak. "Penning the Pandemic" is a collection of poetry, memoirs, and a few plays & short stories. This was my contribution to the book. I had vague notions of a much darker, more apocalyptic tale when I sat down to a blank screen, and had even chosen "This Ain't No Disco" as the working title - but as they often seem to, the story kind of went off in its own direction and wrote itself, ending up here.

More about the book here: viewtopic.php?f=148&p=212649#p212649

Wireless Caller, the phone’s display said.

Lisa set her coffee down with a sigh. Wireless Caller could be anyone. It was too early in the day for the usual barrage of robocalls, IRS impersonators, and dubious charities – but not for her neighbor, Cal. A widower at least 20 years her senior, Cal looked in on her regularly with an almost proprietary interest which she sometimes suspected was motivated by more than neighborly concern. But he never crossed the line into impropriety, and his eagerness to please her was only manifest by his willingness to tackle those home repairs she was unable to perform herself.

Or it could be her brother, Tony. Tony lived three towns away, and provided Lisa with periodic updates on their mother, whom they had been compelled to place into assisted living. Only ten minutes from the facility, he dropped in on her regularly – or had until the Plague had forced the banning of all non-essential visits. The prior week he’d broken to Lisa the news that the facility’s walls had been breached – four of the staffers had tested positive – and that they lacked sufficient resources to test all the residents. Perhaps he was now calling with news to the contrary.

She let it ring twice more before answering. “Hello?”

“Morning, Lisa!” It was Cal. “Sorry to call you so early, but I thought you might want to know that Cameron’s Market has toilet paper and bread.”

Her morning lethargy fell away like snow sliding off a roof. “That’s great news!” she said. “When did they get them?”

“Just last night,” Cal said. “My boy supervises the night shift unloading the trucks. He just called to let me know. I’m headed over there right now – can I pick up anything for you?”

She hesitated for a moment. “Still limiting two per customer?”

“Probably. I didn’t think to ask.”

After a moment’s thought she said, “Thanks, Cal, but don’t worry about me. Grab whatever you need for yourself. I need a few extras anyway, I’ll swing over there a little later.”

“Okay, Lis. Not too much later, though. You know how it is.”

“That I do. And Cal – thanks again.”

After she disconnected, she sat for a moment before getting to her feet. Cal’s call had turned what was to have been yet another predictably dreary day in quarantine into one whose outcome was uncertain. She was going to have to make an unscheduled trip Outside, and it wasn’t even Wednesday, the day assigned her on the basis of her birth month. The assignments weren’t strictly enforced – yet – but she dutifully followed the guidelines and restricted her resupply forays to Wednesdays. Now she was going to venture outside on a Monday. What were Mondays like, now? She remembered their rituals from before she was furloughed from her engineering job – the friendly greetings with her coworkers and staff, the bad coffee, the emails that had accumulated over the weekend. And what about those weekends? What had they been like? She barely remembered. One day now was pretty much like any other.

Except for Wednesdays. She knew well the Wednesday drill. One did not simply leave the house as in the old days, as if the outdoors were just an extension of the living room. There were preparations to be made, precautions to be taken. She knew to pack her handbag with at least one pair of impermeable gloves, at least one surgical mask, a small dispenser of sanitizer, and her state-issued ID. Lately, she’d taken to slipping David’s service pistol and her permit in there as well – just in case. One never knew these days.

She set the satchel on the desk, and from the bottom drawer withdrew the firearm. Certain odors seem to be forever linked with deep memories, and the smell of the leather holster never failed to evoke vivid recollections of him. At times she could almost hear his voice as he clumped up the steps from the entryway to the main hall; his contented groan as he collapsed into his favorite easy chair; and the mischievous way he sometimes called her “Liza” just because he knew it provoked her.

And as it usually did, the rest of it came back to her as well, like a persistent fever she couldn’t shake. It was only supposed to have been a routine traffic stop – a carload of out-of-state college kids out joyriding. But a few days later the results of the mandatory testing at the end of his shift had been anything but routine. He’d not been allowed to return home, so she’d had to pack some personal items for him and drop them off at the hospital entrance. A week later the coup de grace arrived by telephone. It wasn’t just the suddenness with which the Plague had claimed him - it was knowing that, in quarantine, he’d died alone.

Her last words to him had been, “Have a good day, Honey, see you tonight.” She’d left the “I love you” unsaid, assuming there’d be more than enough time to say it later.

“Oh, David,” she whispered, screwing her eyes shut to squeeze out the tears rather than waiting for them to fall on their own. There would be more than enough time later to shed a few more in remembrance. Right now there was work to be done, and a checklist for going Outside to be followed. She shook her head, exhaled, and returned her focus to the now. Uncharacteristically, this Monday had suddenly taken on a purpose, the promise of success precariously balanced against the likelihood of disappointment – with both outcomes occurring against a backdrop of risk. There was only one way to reduce the probabilities to certainty.

She removed the pistol from its holster and placed it into the purse. Then, after dressing and confirming that she had everything else she’d need, she shouldered the bag and stepped out into the combat zone the world had become.

Traffic was only a little heavier than usual, and she reached the store in short order. Since the parking lot was no more crowded than on a typical Wednesday, she wondered if perhaps word had not yet gotten around that scarce items were available. She donned her mask and gloves, quickly checked her hair in the mirror, and got out of the car.

A store employee serving as traffic monitor stood at the entrance, enforcing the limit on the number allowed inside at a time. She took her place behind a half-dozen or so people who had already queued up, silently waiting their turn to enter. The line moved relatively quickly, and before long she was inside, where a pair of store associates were disinfecting the carriage handles for the convenience of the customers. Their bored demeanor compelled her to wipe one down herself, including its rim, before setting out.

She pushed past the register lanes and followed the traffic arrows into the nearest aisle – health products. She hadn’t planned on getting anything here, but she could always use another container of hand sanitizer. Even from where she stood, though, she could see its shelf location had been picked clean. She paused before a hand-written notice taped to the empty shelf urging customers to limit their purchases to two bottles. “Dammit,” she whispered. It had been a long shot, and her supply was adequate for her immediate needs; but there was no telling how long that supply would have to last. She continued to the end of the aisle, where she followed the arrows into the next – pet food and supplies, for which she had no need. But the aisle was adjacent the paper goods, and provided the quickest way to get there along the accepted traffic flow, so she quickly made her way past the bags of dog food and kitty litter, and rounded the corner at the end.

And here she felt as if she’d drawn a winning lottery ticket…

To her left, the racks stretched long and barren from one end to the other, with only a scattering of disposable dust cloths or damaged paper towel rolls punctuating the barrenness. But opposite those – El Dorado! The Emerald City! Identical packages of generic toilet paper, twelve rolls to a bundle! The display was far from full, but a stock boy was maneuvering a fresh pallet of tissue on a hand truck into position while another was ripping off its shrink-wrap. She stepped past them and grabbed a package as if afraid it would prove to be a mirage if she didn’t, and dropped it into the cart, following it immediately with another. The nagging concern that she might be taking more than her share was eased by the fact that the two stock boys had already replaced the two she’d taken and then some.

Having gotten what she’d primarily come for, she felt an almost celebratory urge to buy some frivolous inessential to mark as special this bright moment in an otherwise dark time. She knew the gourmet foods were a few aisles away; and though she’d arrive at its No Entry end if she went there directly, the coffee aisle lay just beyond, where she could pick up a bag of her favorite roast. She proceeded to the paper aisle’s exit eager to carry out this new plan – but found her way blocked by a pair of men entering against the arrows, each pushing a cart piled high with supplies.

They were dressed in hunting camo, their trouser legs loosely tucked into their boots, military style. One wore a black scarf over his face, the other a full face mask with glass eye ports and three HEPA filter housings over the nose and mouth. It was impossible to judge his age, but the one with the scarf might have been 18 or so. Each of their carts carried several cases of beer, and the maximum allowed number of various rationed items – institutional-sized boxes of pasta, an assortment of institutional-sized cans of beans and vegetables. Each of them now tossed a pair of tissue 12-packs atop their other spoils.

The one with the respirator nudged the other’s upper arm with the back of his hand. “Leave some room, we still have to get meat.” His voice was muffled, but he spoke loudly enough for her to make out the words. His younger companion nodded, and rearranged his cart’s contents to more efficiently make use of its space. The older man looked around. “Goddamn it,” he said, “Where the fuck is your mother?”

The other just shook his head and shrugged.

“Go find her,” the older man said. “And tell her to get her ass over here while there’s still TP. Leave your cart here, you’ll move faster.”

The youngster nodded again, and disappeared around the corner, abandoning his cart in the middle of the aisle. The man – his father, she assumed – rested his forearms on the handle of his own cart, partially supporting himself. He clasped his hands together and gazed vacantly down into its depths, as if in idle admiration of its contents, or as if he’d just switched himself into some kind of standby mode. Either way, he still partially blocked the aisle.

How thoughtless, she thought, though she was long past being surprised by boorish behavior. Times of crisis seemed to bring out the extremes of conduct at both ends of the spectrum. Unwilling to create a scene, she kept her aggravation in check. After all, she’d often forgotten to adhere to the one-way directive when it was first put into place. So she just cleared her throat and somewhat timidly said, “Excuse me?”

The man didn’t look at her, but continued gazing towards the floor as if deep in thought.

“Excuse me, sir?” At this he looked up. She forced a smile. Pointing to the arrows taped to the floor tiles, she said, “I think you’re going the wrong way…”

He stared at her for a few seconds, then down to where she pointed, then shook his head and looked away. He muttered something she didn’t quite catch – it sounded a bit like “Good luck yourself, Trish” – though she was pretty sure that wasn’t it. Her mild disapproval flared up into anger, but he stood at least a head taller, and probably outweighed her by 100 pounds. So she held her tongue, and gestured with her cart. “I wonder,” she said, annoyed at the way her voice shook, “if I could just sneak by you?”

Without looking at her, he slid his cart far enough to one side for her to pass, which she did as quickly as she could without giving the appearance of flight. “Thank you so much!” she chirped. Bastard, she thought. “You have a nice day, sir, and Stay Safe!” She didn’t stay long enough to see his reaction, preferring instead to imagine that her exaggerated show of neighborly good-will had thoroughly pissed him off.

She tried putting the encounter out of her mind, but it irritated her as persistently as an itch in the middle of her back. The Plague had seemed to provide a favorable niche for those who harbored a casual disregard for the needs of anyone but themselves. They took the otherwise sensible credo of self-sufficiency and anticipating the worst to an extreme, using it as an excuse to place their own wants ahead of everyone else’s. She suspected their devotion to preparation went beyond material logistics, and included being prepared – and quite willing – to bully and intimidate those less aggressively selfish. It struck her as ironic that they seemed quite unaware that their hoarding was contributing to the very societal collapse which so alarmed them.

She wondered how the exchange might have played out had she produced David’s 9mm, but dismissed the thought as nothing more than adolescent revenge fantasy.

Besides, she had toilet paper! Two dozen rolls! This called for celebration.

She wheeled past the exit of the gourmet section to the aisle just beyond it, coffee and tea. David had never cared for the flavored coffees, but since she’d been on her own she’d indulged her own fondness for hazelnut whenever she could. She cheerfully tossed a bag of her favorite brew into the cart and proceeded to the far end of the lane, where she doubled back to the entrance of the gourmet foods display.

The prices were a little daunting, but this was a special occasion. She found a jar of an exotic Middle Eastern spice blend she liked, and added it to her haul, along with a small bottle of perfumed cooking oil. She felt positively decadent and enormously pleased with herself as she made off with these extravagances.

She swung through the bakery for a fresh loaf of locally-baked bread, and finished with a tour of the dairy. She knew Cal was fond of imported bleu cheese, so she picked up a wedge for him. She owed him at least that much for alerting her to the store’s restocked shelves. As an afterthought, she picked up a block of Parmesan for herself, and proceeded to the checkout.

Once outside, and pushing her cart towards her car, she saw the man in camo a few dozen yards away, placing his purchases into an SUV, while his son, and a woman whom she supposed to be his wife were doing the same. Because of the full-face mask he wore, it was hard to tell for sure, but she had the brief, disagreeable impression that he was looking her way, and had even paused in his task for a few seconds to watch her. Uneasily, she picked up her pace to her own car.

She was fishing around in her purse for the key when a man’s voice nearby called, “Hey. You.” Unsure whether or not it was meant for her, she looked up.

It was the man in camo, walking rapidly her way. It did not look like a friendly approach.

Her mouth went dry, and her heart felt like it had skipped a beat before revving up into a higher gear. “Yes?” she called back. “May I help you?”

He’d stopped about ten feet away. “Yeah,” he said. The face gear masked his features and muffled his voice, but not the hostility. “I’d like to take a look in your cart.”

She heard the words, parsed their meaning, but still couldn’t make sense of the request. “What?” she said. “Why?”

“Because the goddamned store manager knew me and my boy were together,” he said, gesturing back towards where his family stood by their SUV, “and they wouldn’t let him buy any more TP or pasta. If my old lady hadn’t gone through a different lane, we’d only have two lousy packages for the three of us!”

Her brain raced to keep pace with her mouth. “I – I’m sorry,” she managed to say. “But what’s that got to do with me?”

“You got two,” he said, pointing to the toilet rolls. “And you’re only one person. I seen you around, and I asked the cashier. She said you got no one at home. No husband, no kids. And since you gave me so much shit back there, I figured you owed me.”

The scene was taking on a dark, surreal cast, ugly, nightmarish, and other-wordly. Nothing quite like this had ever happened to her before. With no reference point to guide her, no similar prior experiences she could use as templates to chart a course, she was at a loss for how to properly react. “Sorry,” was all she could think to say. “I don’t – I’m – I’m not sure I understand what’s going on here.”

“What’s happening,” the man said, “is that I don’t think you need both of those, and you should give one of them to me.” He took a few steps more and reached towards the cart.

She was so stunned by this turn of events that she just froze in a paralysis of disbelief. This was beyond anything she’d ever experienced. At least muggers have the sense to physically assault you first. And as she stood there dumbfounded, indignant, and more than a little frightened, her hand, still in her purse where it had been hunting for the key, happened to bump into David’s pistol – and something in her snapped. Instinct took over for an intellect stalled with indecision, and she toggled from Flight to Fight. She backed up against her vehicle and closed her hand around the gun’s handle. She withdrew it, adopted the two-handed grip David had shown her, and crouched. “No closer!” she heard herself say. “Back off!”

Visibly startled, the man stopped, dropping his arms at his side. For a few seconds they just eyed one another. Then he said, “You wouldn’t. Not for a few rolls of bumwad.”

She released the safety catch with an audible click. “No,” she said. “Not for that. But to get rid of another asshole? You bet I would.”

The confrontation continued in silence for a few more agonizing seconds. Then he slowly raised his arms. “Okay,” he said. “Okay. Take it easy. I’m outta here.” After he’d taken a few steps backwards, she straightened, but kept the gun leveled in his direction.

“Keep moving,” she said.

He stared at her a few seconds longer, then slowly lowered his arms. He turned around and walked back to his vehicle without a backwards glance.

Her hands had begun trembling while re-engaging the safety and returning the weapon to her purse, and by the time she’d found the car keys, they were shaking so badly she could barely unlock the doors. She threw her purchases into the back, pushed the empty shopping cart to one side without returning it to the corral, and climbed in behind the wheel. She pulled the door shut, relocked all the entries, and burst into tears. Sobbing uncontrollably, she hammered her fists against the steering wheel in helpless rage.

What have we become? she thought. What have I become?

I'm not an outlier. I just haven't found my distribution yet.

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Re: Wednesday's Child

Post by saw » October 5th, 2020, 9:13 am

well written and provocative account of the times we live in
If you do not change your direction
you may end up where you are heading

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Re: Wednesday's Child

Post by sasha » October 6th, 2020, 11:25 am

thanks, steve - I've actually had a few encounters like Lisa's (sans firearm) with assholes who feel that Freedom means license to compromise public health. I don't see them ripping off their shirts & shoes, though.....
I'm not an outlier. I just haven't found my distribution yet.

Posts: 6818
Joined: May 23rd, 2008, 7:32 am
Location: B'more, Maryland

Re: Wednesday's Child

Post by saw » October 10th, 2020, 9:40 am

it's very odd
these random objections to authority
we ain't wearing no stinkin masks !
but we will wear our seat belt
and wow, armed militias planning to kidnap a governor
because why ?
what is your beef ?.....why are you willing to go to federal prison for life ?
tell me again how you have been so aggrieved
or is it you just like playing dress up
and carrying weapons like we did as kids
playing cowboys, or army men
but that was childish games
and you can't see the difference ?
If you do not change your direction
you may end up where you are heading

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Joined: August 15th, 2004, 10:02 pm
Location: north of south

Re: Wednesday's Child

Post by mnaz » October 20th, 2020, 12:35 pm

She has fortitude. Well-painted scenario, with evocative descriptions, as usual. Indeed, what have we become?

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