by Harri B. Cradoc
Coronavirus by Tim Dennell | Flickr
“Let’s just say I don’t like taking showers alone,” said the man on the waiting room sofa.
The tousle-haired woman in the corner chair near the potted plant had picked out a wrinkled leaf of the variegated Schefflera and was attempting to straighten its lifeline. She rubbed the plant’s golden spots between one thumb and finger, and then, with a momentary tug at her facemask, uncovered a smile that stretched her twilight red lips. They pursed like a last kiss of the sun.
“Those yellow marks don’t come off,” he said.
“No? This is what I do to make everything be right again. Rubbing is the key.”
She sounded a little crazy at that moment, the way Bleckman’s mother had sounded to him after he skidded his bicycle in cinders and his mother told him that rubbing the burn with a greasy cream would make it feel better. It never did. It always made him scream. Now here was another woman who made him feel uneasy. At least she was in the right kind of waiting room.
“We’re all suffering from a lack of touching,” said the woman, “because of this latest virus going around. I appreciate that you sat down across the room, by the way. I can’t wait to see the new talk-through partitions in the office—you must have heard—they make it so much more personal than going online or phoning it in. What did you say you were being treated for, a fear of showers?”
Bleckman may have blushed, or it could have been a fever coming on. He might have hoped so. Getting old and in good health only means your friends die before you, and the funeral director can close the doors early after your own wake.
“Not quite,” he said while counting the floor tiles to confirm he was six feet away. “I think I am tired of living alone, and tired of eating alone, and sleeping alone, that kind of thing.”
The young woman nodded while picking out other green and deserving candidates to stroke. “And that’s why you are taking up my counselor’s valuable time and making me wait to see her?”
“Well, it started there,” said Bleckman who was now counting the months he had not touched another human being. It was sadder than counting floor tiles, but it was enough to keep his mind occupied. “The other thing is that I think I would rather catch the virus and get it over with, than wait.”
The plant sympathizer eyed him slantwise, not wanting to lose touch with the Schefflera which, if she was any good at all, quite possibly adored her at this point. “The virus would kill a person who is not strong enough. You must be strong to resist it.”
“Or to go in search for it and welcome it. That is a different kind of strength, but apparently the one I have worked up to. Would you like to switch appointments? I can wait and rub the plant for you while you’re in there.”
She nearly coughed but caught herself in mid-gasp. “Please go right in. You need the counseling more than I do.”
“You sure? I’m not afraid of whatever your caring fingers left behind on those leaves.”
“That is the scary part.” she said, pointing an accusatory chin at him. “You are not afraid!”
On his way home from the counseling center, Bleckman tried ringing doorbells and inquiring how several of his friends were doing. They were all willing to talk to him, most over an intercom, but one opened his door a crack to see what kind of fool might be making house calls in the middle of a pandemic. “Jules Bleckman, why are you standing out there when you know I cannot open the door?”
“So, Frank, do you need a carpenter?” Bleckman laughed gently, not wanting to lose his sense of humor along with his sense of touch. “How do you get food if you can’t get through the door?”
“We have it delivered. I tell them to slip in through the pet door.” He laughed to let the other know he was joking. Bleckman looked down to where his shoelaces were loosely tied and dragging on the floor. People would not see his shoes, unless they got down on their hands and knees and poked a head through the pet door, which, despite his friend’s jest, might have been large enough for a bag of groceries with the top folded over.
“I was just wondering, do you have any visitors at all? Anyone come in to fix the sink or unplug the toilet?”
“This is the all-important question?,” said the other, his nose just visible where the doorframe met a chain lock. “I bought a plunger before this virus got really bad, and the water dripping in the sink is not an emergency. I find its perpetual monotony helps me get to sleep at night. So what about you?”
“I wander around some. Spend a lot of time talking to closed doors. And my sink is just fine, thank you.”
“That’s okay, my friend. You don’t have any condition a plumber could fix. You need a good head shrinking, boy.”
“But you are my friend, who happens to be a psychiatrist, aren’t you?”
“Neither a good enough friend nor doctor for you, I’m afraid. You need the Maynard G. Krebs kind, the one who can talk you out of collecting aluminum foil. If I’ve confused you by employing that obscurity, I couldn’t be more pleased. Go home and look it up.”
“What I want to know,” said Bleckman, checking his facemask, “is whether wanting to expose myself to this virus is a symptom of some deeper problem, a latent death wish exposed, or just the stubborn act of an old man bringing his last ghoulish fish to shore.” But engaging in psychobabble only made his door-nosing friend retreat farther into his safe haven.
“Bothering friends with your insecurities, even those innocent leftovers from an otherwise happy childhood, is bad form,” said the man who appeared to be closing the door by millimeters. “Come back when this is all over.”
And that will be when? But Bleckman had to save this thought, let it whoosh around in his vacuum-sealed brain, because his friend had succeeded in shutting him all the way out.
Not everyone was living in a tomb or playing video games against imaginary enemies. Outside on his apartment stairs, some children who had not been sentenced to the online version of solitary were using his front door as first base in a whiffle ball game. He was just in time to reach up and snag a hard line drive as it headed for what would have been the right-field stands, if he lived in a ballpark. He inspected the white plastic ball, the sort with so many holes, like pockmarks. It seemed to him that a disease had spread as far down as the toy boxes under our beds and the picnic baskets stowed away in untouched closets. “Anyone here got the sniffles?” he asked.
The whiffle ball players paused, some tugging at scarves and other homemade head wraps, and a couple wiped their noses and then checked their shirtsleeves for any obvious germ-carrying fluids. Apparently, there were none.
The sickness was simply everywhere, and Bleckman no longer cared to stay one step ahead of it. He meant to embrace it, to kiss it on its taunting lips. Under his filtered breath he ruminated, “Maybe if I rub this ball like some spotted leaves or a skinned knee, then in a few days I will wake up with a fever and shortness of breath. It won’t be long, and I will either gain some brief immunity or find myself morphing into something like the earth itself, something a plant could use, spotted or not.”
“Hey, mister,” yelled a big boy with sweat-dampened hair dangling across his forehead. He wiped the hair away and spread the flat of one hand behind him to show the other boys and girls they were not to approach this stranger. “Are you going to give us our ball back?”
“What’s important,” said Bleckman, “is whether you think this ball is safe or not?” He liked acting like a kid again, playing with an imaginary germ that he could fool by hiding behind a tree. Maybe he could live with it, if he thought hiding from everyone else was part of the game. Then he would go inside and wash his hands three times over, like a doctor preparing for surgery. Only, in this case, the patient would be himself.
The big boy took what looked like a bag of rags out of the side pocket of his jeans. He pulled out one white square of cloth and yelled again, “Toss it here, mister, thank you!”
This one has obviously been on a tennis court recently, thought Bleckman, wondering if he would ever play such a game with a real person again. But he would watch and learn from this one. He tossed the whiffle ball in a high arc and it landed on the big boy’s palm where the white square wrapped it up.
“Disinfectant,” said the boy, and he began massaging the little sphere as lovingly as if it had actual feelings and emotions. “This is what I do to make everything be right again.”
Where had he heard that before?