Written by Bruce Dodson
This is the worst of times—a plague. Our leaders are confused, afraid, and often incompetent. The competents are getting fired as those who’ve seen too much fall out of windows, sometimes hang themselves, and are prone to accidents. Citizens with loaded guns stroll public places. Chances are I won’t get gunned down by some madman, but it happens every week.
This virus is a stealthy killer that can be delivered on a cardboard pizza box. The odds for me—a 50/50 chance of getting Covid. This it’s not the best time to be elderly. I’m suddenly aware of, elderly, a label for people of a certain age. I’m 85 now and admit to being elderly. I’m told to stay at home. ‘The virus will kill you—almost certain death might well be waiting on a doorknob, or airborne surfing on a stranger’s sneeze.
I haven’t left the house in months. It’s not as though I have a fear of death. I’m old, I get it. Not so many years are left, but I would rather not die gasping for breath with my face in a ventilator, surrounded by strangers in masks, and gowns, and gloves—afraid to touch me. I’ve stayed home these last three months.
Those first few weeks I rearranged the closet, cleaned up rooms and cluttered drawers. Got rid of things I’ll never use or need. I had a burst of energy, but then—these last weeks, it began to fade away. There seemed less to do and got harder to do it. Drawers have re-cluttered, and rooms need cleaning again, but I’ve lost interest. I feel lazy, tired for no reason. Nothing to do but surf the internet, and watch movies on TV. I’ve read a couple books as days grew long and boring. I can handle this, I tell myself. I don’t go out much these last years: the gym three times a week, and trips to a store for something needed. Something needed is the problem.
I’ve run out of whisky. The neighbor leaves groceries at my door now, but he doesn’t drink—an AA member who’s been dry for twenty years. I do not want to ask him to deliver booze—to put him in harm’s way, but it was nice to have a shot or two at night, end of another day. It’s been three weeks since my last drink. I need to get some whisky in the house, enough to last . . . how long? I should have thought ahead and stocked up, but who knew? Some people did. I’m elderly and slow at times—still in good health though. How long will it last? Can I afford to take the risk of stepping out into a toxic atmosphere? Is whisky worth the risk of life, my own and others I might come in contact with? I decided it is.
A trip to the liquor store.
I’ve been wearing the same sweatsuit for days and sometimes sleep in it— no need to change, just me alone here. I pull on a pair of slacks and a clean sweatshirt, then tie on a pair of shoes and notice bending is not as easy as it used to be. I find my keys and some thin plastic gloves the neighbor left; they were giving them away where he worked. I throw on a denim, Levi jacket. It’s the middle of May and still cold here. There was light snow two days ago—a typical Swedish spring.
I unlock the car, put my gloves on the passenger seat and shove the key into the ignition slot. I give it a twist. Nothing—not even a whimper of effort. I click the radio on—nothing. Battery’s totally dead. I haven’t used the car in weeks. The guy across the street has a charger, but borrowing it will mean contact with another human, one who goes to work every day. Who has he touched? Has someone sneezed on him? Who knows?
There’s no alternative. I make a phone call and Fredrik comes over a half hour later with the charger. He helps hook it up and says, “It’s going to take a couple hours to get the charge back up.” He leaves and I go back into the house to wait and look at TV news to pass the time.
I’m watching riots in the States . . . so many places, buildings burning. I change channels and watch a riot in Hong Kong, protests in England— crowds of tightly packed protesters. What about the virus? They don’t care; their cause is more important than whisky, but we all have limits to our tolerance. I go back out a couple hours later. Battery’s now fully charged and the Volvo starts without protest. It feels good to be on the road again.
I see an old lady who is a decade younger than me waiting at a bus stop. She’s a neighbor who lives alone and does not drive. As I pull over to pick her up I notice there’s’ a kid, maybe twelve years of age, sitting on a bench a meter or so from where she stands. He’s coughing directly at her, a phony cough—harassing tease. She is ignoring him, but I can see she’s annoyed. I pull over and open the passenger side door for her.
“That little bastard was driving me crazy,” she says as she gets in. She’s sitting on my gloves. The kid leaves his seat and comes over to cough on the car. I give him the finger as we leave.
“It’s a new thing idiots have taken up,” I tell her. You are not the first one to be coughed at. I’ve seen mention of it on the internet, a few times—often older people.”
“Guess it’s better not to talk,” she says. “In this closed space.” She’s wearing a mask. “You’re not wearing a mask,” she says.
“This is my first time out in months. You’re going for groceries?”
“Haircut,” she tells me.
I’m surprised. A trip to the beauty shop seems dangerous—such close contact will be greater than the risk I’m taking. We say nothing for the rest of a short ride and I let her out in a parking lot at the shopping center. My gloves are smashed flat. They were always flat, but now the sides are stuck together. It’s hard to get the damn things open, but I manage and then fumble a two kroner coin out of the cup holder and step out to feed a parking meter. I drop the coin twice while trying to get it in the slot. It’s hard to hold onto things with these plastic cloves. It seems weird to be wearing them. Paper is easy to hold on to and I leave the parking chit on the car’s dashboard.
I see a few others on the sidewalk some with masks, some not—none of them wearing gloves. Do I look silly wearing mine? The store is just two blocks away. A sudden thought—will it be open? More than half the businesses I pass are closed, but would the city dare to close a liquor store in Sweden? We are in the middle of an alcohol belt that starts in Russia and goes south as far as Denmark. There would be riots if they closed them. God, why don’t they let us smoke a joint? We’ve outlawed coffee once . . . or was it twice? We’re good at passing laws in Sweden. It’s illegal to carry a pocket knife. One of our politicians got stabbed a few years ago, so we outlawed pocket knives. Each week I see new Swedish laws about the virus, often published as suggestions. We assume people are intelligent—always a risk.
As I approach the liquor store I see a number of yellow tapes stuck horizontally to my side of the sidewalk. What the hell is this? Some kind of graffiti? Someone else’s weird sense of humor? At the door I get it. The tapes are to keep people meter or so apart from each other while they are standing in line waiting to get in. There is no one waiting at the moment. Good. I open the door wondering how many others have opened it today—glad for the gloves. There are only a few other customers inside. I make a quick saunter to the shelf where they keep the 7 Oaks. How many should I buy? How many can I carry? These damn gloves . . . I didn’t think to bring a bag.
I stick a bottle under my arm and hold two others in my hands. I move to the checkout counter and take one of the plastic bags they sell. I’ve read the virus lives for days on plastic. I’ve got gloves on, but when I get home? Should remove the bottles with my gloves on, then peel off the gloves. Then wash the bottles? No — wash bottles with gloves on, then hold the empty bag with one gloved hand and peel the other glove off without touching the exposed surface. I’m still thinking about it when the cashier motions me to come forward. The bag and bottles slide to her on a conveyor belt. How many bottles rode this belt today, all touched by someone without gloves?
The gal behind the counter doesn’t wear a mask. She smiles a cashier’s smile and I feel sorry for her, for the risk she’s taking for a paycheck — here all day with hundreds passing and short conversations, but at least she’s got a job. A lot of us do not. First of the month tomorrow. Rent is due.
“That will be seven hundred Kroner,” she says as I try to get my billfold out — these damn gloves. I fumble with it as another customer comes up behind me with no gloves, or mask. He lays what might be virus laden bottles on the belt. I finally manage to get the wallet from my pocket, but have trouble removing my credit card. The guy behind me moves in closer as I stick it in a slot and punch the keys that hundreds have pushed before me. You cannot escape this shit, but I’ve got gloves on. I take the card back and put my bottles in the plastic bag. I have a paper bag full of paper bags at home, but didn’t think to bring one.
I pass through the virus-laden door again, onto the sidewalk moving past the yellow tapes. A woman’s coming toward me, with a mask. Is she’s smiling? She has paused beside me.
“You are old,” she says.
“I know that. I’ve been lucky.”
“You should wear a mask,” she says. “Both for your own good and for mine.”
“This is the first time I’ve left in months,” I tell her.
“Right. That’s what you all say.” She moves on, not smiling. I feel sure of it.
I make it home without further incident and throw the plastic bag and gloves in the garbage, then pour a double shot of whisky from an unwashed bottle and feel good about the soothing burn as it goes down my throat. God Damn! This will not be my last time out. God only knows what’s going to happen next. Will there be glove borne virus waiting for me on the Volvo’s steering wheel?
Bruce Louis Dodson is an American expat living in Borlänge, Sweden. His photographs, collages, fiction, and poetry have been published internationally. His novel, Lost in Seattle is now at Amazon, and a memoir, Dearie will be available in the near future.