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2021 Contributing Writers Pandemic Prose

Requiem for a Home

Written by Julian Matthews

It was my daily routine. I liked my coffee hot. Put the water to boil in the kettle first.

Then take the seven pills in the pillbox that Jenna had filled for the week. Today was Friday.

One for my heart, two for my pressure, two for the arthritis and the last two to keep me sane. 

I have to take the last two or Jenna said she would send me to a home. I surely didn’t want to go to a home, I would rather be on my own.

Was she coming today?

The calendar said Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. I had crossed out Thursday, so today must be Friday.

Oh, I still have some cake in the fridge. That lemon drizzle butter cake Jenna got from the new cake shop run by that former stewardess in the township. She has the touch. Her cakes are fresh and not too sweet, not too dry and not too moist. Just right.

I liked it so, because it reminded me of mum’s. Her sugee and chocolate cake were not up to par yet but the lemon drizzle butter cake was perfect. Pricey but worth it.

I’ll just pop it in the microwave. Jenna taught me how to use it. Press here, then here. Forty seconds and it would be just right.  

Did I put the water to boil? Let me check. Oh, yes, I did.

I once left the gas stove on overnight. And the next morning, though it smelt funny, I lit it anyway. Jenna was so mad. She’d wanted to get rid of that cooker for years.

The doctor said I had 40 percent burns. I thought he must be Einstein to calculate percentages on a person’s skin so accurately. Especially, skin as wrinkly and spotty as mine. 

I liked the word spotty like as if I were a leopard, camouflaged in the trees, ready to pounce on prey. Better leopard than cougar, I suppose. I am just too old to be a cougar.

I wonder if they are all cougars at the home that Jenna keeps talking about. I am sure the men are all lechers. Maybe even lepers. Eww, lecherous lepers. This leopard will show them.

Jenna threatened to send me there again after the incident. I surely didn’t want to go to a home. I would rather be on my own.

There was no need for skin grafts but I singed my eyebrows for good. They never grew back. I never really liked having to pluck them regularly anyway. One less weight to carry to my grave.

After I was discharged, Jenna took my Royal gas cooker away and replaced it with an electric stove. I could still use my whistling kettle though. And there it goes!

Did I say, I liked my coffee hot? I do. The lemon drizzle butter cake is nice and warm now.

The soft sunlight streaming in at this time of the day is so lovely on the balcony. I need my Vitamin D, said Jenna. She moved my cane chair there so I could get some sun every morning. As if my wrinkles needed any more sun to get the creases out. 

Once I told her sitting so long in the sun made my crow’s feet as dark as the bird’s. Jenna laughed. She called them laugh lines, not crow’s feet. She was still sweet that way. 

“Oh, amah, you still can make me laugh at your age!”

“At my age? Of course, I can. I tickled your tiny feet and made you giggle on the first day you were born, chellam! September 10th, 1965. A day before my birthday. So you’re always one day ahead of me.”

She smiled. I needed to remind Jenna of my ability to remember dates, so she wouldn’t think I was slipping. It was a little game we played. She didn’t know I had all the dates marked out on a calendar and chose which date to drop in conversation — a birth date or an anniversary or the date of James’ death. I would repeat a particular date over and over again, walking in circles around the bedroom, the night before or sometimes, when my head hurt, I would cheat like I did in school and scribble it with a ballpoint pen in my palm. Jenna never found out when I peeked. 

It was Jenna’s idea to move me to this condo on the 12th floor. I had to give up the house after the third robbery. There was nothing to take really that last time — so I gave the two robbers a piece of my mind and kicked one of them in the shin. The angry one knocked me to the ground. When I came to, I called Jenna.

She was so mad. She took me to the clinic nearby and got the stitches done. We didn’t even bother filing a police report. They are pretty useless and never do anything these days anyway. Jenna’s solution was a guarded condo in a gated community.  I consented because I didn’t want to go to a home. I would rather be on my own. 

Did I switch off the electric stove? I am sure I did. Oh, why bother? It cuts off automatically anyway.

I usually switch off the main plugs only at night. Saves electricity. I read somewhere that if you leave the plugs on it would raise your electricity bill by 15 percent. Someone did the math. I make sure I switch off everything before bedtime — the stove, the TV, the radio, the hot water shower and I double-lock the doors. 

Wait. Did I switch off the microwave just now? I will check later. Jenna isn’t coming today, is she?

I am sure she isn’t. It’s Wednesday anyway.

The sun this time of the day on the balcony is just nice, not too hot, not too glaring. Gregory Peck would be along soon.  I knotted my hair and straightened my housecoat. 

They didn’t allow pets in this apartment. No dogs. No cats. I had to give up Lucky to the shelter at PAWS. Jenna assured me he would be cared for and they would find him a new home. I felt at 12, Lucky was almost my age and half blind and deaf, and no one would adopt an old mongrel. But Jenna said they cull the dogs at the SPCA these days — so we went with PAWS. 

I do hear the occasional bark sometimes at night on my block.  A resident either two floors above or below me had broken the rules and smuggled in a Shih Tzu or maybe a Fox Terrier, based on the cute bark. 

People need companions in their old age. 

Ah, here comes Gregory Peck swooping down majestically landing on the banister. He coos and I coo coo back. I am sure he understands every word I say.

He looks so regal with his mix of pristine white and posh grey feathers and the rich, striking purple band around his neck. I feed him the expensive brown Basmati rice that Jenna buys for me. Oh, she would be so mad if she knew. Sometimes, I feed him the Gardenia butterscotch bread she buys me. She always wondered how I finished those so quickly. 

“Coo, coo, Mr Peck. How are we today? Breaking little hearts on the terraces, are we?” and I broke him a little piece of the lemon drizzle butter cake.

“Coo, coo,” he replies as if to say: “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Wait. Was that a Gregory Peck or a Clark Gable quote? Maybe it was Bogart.

Oh, I’ll just Google it up on the laptop computer Jenna got me. Thank god they invented Google so we never need forget anything these days. Jenna said an Indian chap is the CEO now. Those Indian men are bloody smart now. They weren’t very smart in my time.  Especially not my James. I don’t want Jenna to catch me forgetting again.

She doesn’t know about Gregory Peck yet. None of the residents like the pigeons nesting on the balconies and ledges of this condo. They shit everywhere and mess up the aircon compressors. Poor birdies. Where else would they go? 

Gregory Peck keeps me company. I am not allowed to go out these last few weeks because of the pandemic. Apparently at 90, I am vulnerable. Jenna even bought me a box of masks. I tried one on. I look like Batman. Or Zorro. Or all those doctors and nurses after surgery when James died. 

Gregory Peck cocked his head and gave me the eyeball. “Coo, coo, are you tearing up, again?” He never lets me come close enough to pet him. “Ok, I am not having any of this. Pull yourself together, sweetheart.  I’m off, ” and he took off. 

The wailing ambulance going by scared him. I wonder who could be in it today. So many go by each day.

I miss James, my sweet acha. He would never send me to a home. We always lived on our own and took care of ourselves, even after Jenna left. 

Wait. Did I turn off the gas stove? I better check. Jenna would be so mad. 


Julian Matthews is a former journalist and trainer finding new ways to express himself in the pandemic through poetry, short stories and creative non-fiction. He was recently published in Nine Cloud Journal, Poor Yorick Journal, Second Chance Lit, Poetry and Covid, and Unmasked: Reflections on Virus-time (curated by Shamini Flint). He is based in Malaysia. 

2021 Contributing Writers Pandemic Prose

A Package For Escape

Written by Marie Petrarch

At the slightest twitch the seat of Eleanor’s desk chair wobbles and leans left. God damn it. She shifts her body, determined to reclaim the sweet spot in the center she found minutes before. The chair creaks loudly, protesting her weight, as she moves from left to right and front to back. Frustration builds with each gyration. She moves faster and faster in a spastic chair dance until suddenly, she admits defeat. Her chair leans left, her arms hang limp at her sides and her head is tilted back. She stares at the water stain on her ceiling. It’s shaped like the state of Texas and she envisions where Houston would be.

This sucks. Eleanor has been working from home for a month now. Her chair has been broken for a year, but it never mattered since she spent so little time in it. It seemed like an unnecessary expense to replace it. That was before. Now she spends hours of every day in that god forsaken chair, and it’s one of the many things scratching at her sanity. As is her too small apartment, her loud and amorous neighbors, and her lack of real human interaction.

Her cell phone chimes with a reminder that she has a virtual meeting in five minutes. Before, when people were able to congregate in conference rooms and sit within inches of each other, she thought of meetings as a major impediment to a productive day. But now, meetings are the feature of her days. She looks forward to seeing the familiar faces and hearing their voices, even those of her coworkers she doesn’t like.

She stands up to stretch and refill her water glass before having to settle in for the meeting. Her outfit is the clothing equivalent of the mullet. Business on the top and a [slumber] party down below. On the short walk to the kitchen she passes the large, thin, rectangular box that was delivered three days ago. Before, she would have ripped it right open the moment it came, but now you’re supposed to leave packages untouched for a few days in case it’s been contaminated with the novel virus that’s shut down the world.  I’ll open it tomorrow, she decides. Tomorrow is Saturday. It will give me something to do for five minutes.

#

Saturday morning Eleanor sleeps in and then lingers in bed. There’s no good reason not to. Netflix will be there no matter what time she gets up. She stares out the window next to her bed. The light coming through is dim and grey. Rain drops cover the glass beyond the sheer curtains. The only sounds are the occasional footsteps from above. Eleanor ponders how she’ll spend her time today. I should exercise. Maybe yoga. Then I should clean. If it stops raining, I’ll put on my mask, and go for a walk.

Before, she would have gone to the gym then shopping, and met up with friends for dinner and drinks. Maybe they would have gone to a club and danced the night away. Maybe she would have met someone and not gone home alone. But that was before, and now she is very much alone. A point hammered home by the thumping of the wall that starts just behind her head.

“Aaarrgghhh!” Feeling aggravated and jealous, Eleanor gets out of bed and shuffles towards the bathroom. Loud moans join the thumps just as she sits on the toilet. She pops back up and closes the door, but it’s not enough. Eleanor’s apartment is filled with an erotic techno beat overlayed with soprano chanting of the Lord’s name.

On her way to the kitchen, Eleanor spots the quarantined package and changes course to her desk for a scissor. After slicing open the tape, she sprays disinfectant all over the box and scissor and then washes her hands. Pulling back the now damp cardboard flaps of the box she reaches inside and pulls out the bubble-wrapped contents before spraying the bubble wrap with disinfectant. She decides to let that dry for a few minutes while she washes her hands again and puts on the kettle for tea. Meanwhile, the beat of the lover’s song has slowed to it’s sultry, breathy, still loud, bridge.

Sipping her tea, Eleanor sits on the floor. She sets her tea aside and carefully unwinds the bubble-wrap to reveal a framed print of Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights”. A card is attached.

Dear Eleanor,

         Remember when we saw this painting in Madrid last summer? How mesmerized we were? I thought it would add some color to your life during this dull and scary time.

Love, Grandma

Eleanor laughs. Only her grandmother would think to send such a bizarre yet erotic and disturbing painting to her granddaughter.

The only wall space big enough to hang it is above her bed. The frame is ornate with a gold finish. Just her grandmother’s style. She sprays the frame with disinfectant, washes her hands, and fetches a hammer and nail from the tool set in her closet. The bridge of the background music has transitioned to the outro and it seems her neighbors are gearing up for a dramatic end. The ecstatic moans and rhythmic pounding of the wall drown out Eleanor’s knuckle tapping for a stud. Finding a good spot, she positions the nail and gently taps it in place. After two quick bangs, the nail is ready and she hangs the picture.

Standing on her unmade bed, she steps back to admire it. Despite it vibrating against the wall, she becomes fascinated, just as she was when she saw the original in Madrid. The painting is composed of three panels each with an astounding amount of detail. The colors trap you and then your brain starts to unravel the puzzle before you. The first panel of Adam, Eve, and Jesus Christ is easy enough, but it’s the middle panel that intrigues and confuses. As bizarre as the scene is, the overarching feeling is joy. I miss joy. She imagines herself a libertine in the Garden, frolicing, dancing, and fucking like the people in the painting. Like my neighbors, she thinks, whose love making has reached a crescendo.

She glances at the third panel and remembers her grandmother pointing out the “knife dick” wedged between the two ears and saying how that panel must be about the evil of using sex as a weapon. Eleanor agreed, and still does, but doesn’t want to dwell there. She looks back to the middle panel and again imagines herself in the Garden riding a mythical creature and eating strange berries or climbing a phallic tower and drinking the liquid from it’s fountain. 

The neighbors must be racing towards their climax because the frame starts dancing frantically against the wall. It looks like it might jump right off it’s nail. Eleanor grabs the frame to steady it. Being so close to the art, her eyes zero in on a cluster of young women all draped in garland and watching the spree around them. Eleanor is visualizing herself amongst them when the frame starts to vibrate with an intensity beyond the neighbor’s doing. She tightens her grip, confused as to what’s causing the violent shaking. She can feel the vibrations through her hands, moving up her arms. When the protective glass of the frame morphs to a wavy puddle, Eleanor’s confusion becomes fear. Frightened, she lets go and backs away from the frame, stumbling and getting twisted in her bedding. The frame is still vibrating even though her neighbor’s have gone quiet. Eleanor stares at the picture in disbelief. The people inside the middle panel seem to be moving. Faint sounds of gleeful revelry are coming from beyond the wavy puddle. A light, shining through the frame, grows in intensity, and spills over Eleanor’s bed. It beckons her. On shaky legs, Eleanor gets up and slowly moves towards it. She raises a tentative hand to the puddle and as soon as her fingertips make contact, Eleanor is sucked through the frame. She lands on her back with a thud and is shrouded in light. She can’t see anything at first, but when her eyes adjust, she sees the girls from the painting leaning over her. 

“Eleanor, we’re so happy you could join us,” says one. “Don’t be scared,” says another. All of them reach down and help her stand. The girls encircle Eleanor and she stares at them in amazement.

“Welcome to the Garden, Eleanor,” says the one who first welcomed her. “We need to get these clothes off you. No one wears clothes in the Garden.”

Eleanor can’t find the words to answer. She is in awe of what surrounds her. Looking beyond the girls she sees naked people cavorting all over the most beautiful garden imaginable. The painting doesn’t do it justice. 

“Here, let us help.” Four pairs of hands reach for Eleanor’s pajamas, startling her. She steps out of reach holding up her hands in defense.

“That’s ok. I’ll…I’ll do it.”  Eleanor is nervous and confused. Her body is shaking, her heart is racing, and her breaths are short. Am I dreaming or have the long weeks of isolation caused a mental break? This can’t actually be happening.

The girls wait patiently while Eleanor sorts through her thoughts. This must be a dream. She pinches herself and it feels real enough. The girls look at her expectantly.  Well, when in Rome, I guess. She slowly undresses, leaving her pajamas on the ground.

“Now, that’s better,” says the one who seems to be the leader. “My name is Natasha. This is Rachel, Beth, and June.” She points to her companions who nod and smile in greeting.

“Hello,” answers Eleanor nervously. She fidgets, not knowing what to do with her arms. She folds them across her chest, and then switches to having one arm across her chest while the other protects her modesty below, and then switches back again until finally letting them fall at her sides. She is a riot of emotions – nervous, confused, shy, scared, curious.

“You need to relax,” explains Natasha. “This is a very special place. Try to enjoy it.”

“How about we go for a swim,” suggests Rachel.

“Great idea! I’ll lead the way.” Natasha grabs Eleanor’s hand and the other girls follow behind.

Eleanor doesn’t know which way to look. There is so much to take in, her senses are overwhelmed. The lush lawn feels like velvet under her feet. The air is warm and smells strongly of honeysuckle with undertones of human sweat. The colors of everything, from the birds and fruits to the strange vessels people are in and spilling out of, are so intense they have a life unto themselves.  The sounds are a medley of birdsong, laughter, joy, moans, growls, sighs, and gasps. People are doing strange, random things like carrying humongous fish or standing on their heads while other people are lounging in a sated stupor. 

When they reach the water’s edge the girls walk right in while Eleanor dips a single toe. A message of pleasure is sent directly to her brain. She walks in up to her waist and glides her hands through the water. It feels like caressing the finest silk. She moves in further, and when the water hits her breasts an intense jolt of pleasure moves through her body. She can feel tension leaving her every muscle until she feels she must resemble a boiled noodle.  The happiest fucking noodle there ever was.  She starts to laugh and so do the girls.

“See, I told you this place is special. You can be completely free here, untethered to any responsibility, and free of judgement. Just embrace it and enjoy.”  With that Natasha swims away, and the other girls follow.

Eleanor stays where she is, closes her eyes, and floats on her back. This is amazing. Every time the water washes over her nipples she gets another shock of pleasure.

“Hello.”  Her eyes fly open at the sound of a male voice so close to her ear.  She stands up, and looks into the face of a beautiful man.  “I’m Jared. What’s your name?”

“Eleanor,” she answers shyly.

”It’s nice to meet you, Eleanor.  Welcome to the Garden.”

“Thank you.”

“Can I interest you in a berry?”

Common sense tells her no, that she shouldn’t accept a strange fruit from a strange, naked man, but common sense seems out of place in the Garden. If I’ve lost my mind, I might as well enjoy it.

“Sure, why not?”

He holds out a large, purple berry. It’s bumpy like a blackberry, but a hundred times bigger. She takes a small bite and her mouth fills with it’s luscious flavor.  “Hmmmm, that’s delicious.”

“Have some more.”  She takes a larger bite, and chews while smiling at Jared. The more she chews, the more his beauty grows. These berries must be some kind of aphrodisiac.

Jared releases the berry to the water. “Can I kiss you, Eleanor?”

Without hesitation she answers, “Yes, please.” She surprises herself with her reply, but doesn’t stop Jared when he gently takes her face in his hands, and joins his lips to hers. He tastes like the berry, and she reaches her arms around him pulling him closer. Her hands explore his back and pull his hair, both slick from the magical waters. He wraps an arm around her waist and fondles her breast. Their kiss grows more passionate and their hands more curious. Pleasure is all there is until a giant bubble carrying lovers and floating on the water bumps into Eleanor. She’s knocked off balance and falls beneath the surface. She’s immediately sucked down deeper, but before she can panic, she lands on her back with a bounce on her tousled bed.

Naked, dripping wet, and breathing rapidly, she pushes up on her hands and looks around her tiny apartment. Bubble wrap and the cardboard box litter the floor next to her teacup and disinfectant spray. Sun shines through her sheer curtains, and the raindrops on her window have dried. She looks down at her glistening skin dampening the sheets. Loud, joyful laughter starts deep in her belly and fills the air. She looks behind her at the “Garden of Earthly Delights” hanging slightly askew, but still, almost coy. She collapses flat on her bed laughing, reminding herself to call and thank her grandmother.


Marie Petrarch is an emerging writer from Long Island, NY. She gave up a career in fashion to stay home with her three kids, and started writing to preserve her intelligence and mental health. She is currently writing her first novel.

2021 Contributing Writers Pandemic Prose

F.I.M.P.

Written by R.F. Gonzalez  

A week after moving into the apartment across from Lilly’s, she knocked on my door and pushed a plate of charred chocolate chip cookies into my hand. She was odd like that. Brilliant and rare. Exotic but toxic.

“Come on in,” I said, sarcastically but with a hint of invitation.  

Lilly’s hair was a pink asymmetrical bob which flared out at every turn of her head. It smelled as fragrant as her name, flicking me in the face as she pushed passed.

She had a pointed nose, her pallid skin yearned for the sun, and her lips were thin and undefined. Later, when I’d known her a while and the dye had washed out, she would bundle her copper hair into a hat as if it was too much of a burden to loosen. Her usual navy cap said NY on the front, the Y impaling the N down the middle.

“Why did you move here?” she said. “It’s a terrible area.”

“I’m too broke to afford anything else, and my friends’ couches are off-limits now.”

“How sad for you,” she said, insincerely.

It was spring and the lockdown had been in place for weeks due to the novel virus. The media had announced that this one would kill us all. Things looked bleak. Standing in the middle of my cramped apartment, Lilly scrutinized my possessions. She said “Sexy” when she saw a replica of the Venus of Willendorf.

“I’m Lee,” I said and extended my hand toward her.

“Lilly,” she said extending hers. She was the first person I’d touched in a week.

“Thanks for the cookies.”

“You look like a cookie guy.”

“Really?”

“No, doofus. I saw your shirt.”

I Heart Cookies, right under the words was a graphic of a halved clotted pig heart. It had bulging veiny eyes and was suffocating.

“Oh, right,” I said, stretching my shirt out and peering at the art. “I appreciate the gesture.”

“I’m being neighborly.”

“Nowadays, neighborly neighbors are outlaws.”

“You going to turn me in?” she said devilishly.

“No chance. Want a beer?”

“Always.”

I handed her a lager and we said “Cheers” simultaneously.

There was a moment of cold silence before I said, “You just barged into my apartment without knowing me – during a pandemic.”

“Men are easy to know.”

“And women aren’t?” I said defensively, before adding, “We could be exposing one another.”

“We aren’t flashers,” she laughed.

“Smart ass.”

“The virus will be gone soon enough,” she said, “and it’s mainly killing old people.” She was wrong, of course. COVID was decimating more than the infirm. Soon, we’d say goodbye to the economy and our way of life.

There was a knock on the door and a small white face peered in.

“Come here, baby,” said Lilly.

The four-year-old girl tiptoed barefoot across the water damaged laminate – a remnant of past calamity.

I said, “Hello,” as she ignored and passed me.

“This is Remi, my daughter.”

“She looks like you.”

Lilly rolled her eyes in contempt and said, “Remi, meet your new sitter.”

“What?” I said, wondering why she’d entrust her child to a stranger.

“I’ll pay you. It’s not every day but I’ll need you when I need you.”

“But we just met.”

“Schools and daycares are closed. Plus, you live across the hall. I can easily find you and hurt you if I have to.”

I laughed but she didn’t. I couldn’t say no. Everyone was isolated and desperate.

***

A week later, while sharing some lagers, I inquired about her work.

“I lease women out to men,” she said flatly.

“Shall we cheer to that?”

“Not everything needs a hurrah.”

“So, you’re a pimp.”

“Nope.”

“Then what are you?”

“Not that.”

“So, you’re a madam?”

“I’m not a damn madam.”

“You’re a fimp,” I said reflexively.  

“What?”

“A female pimp.” There was a short pause before I blurted out, “F-I-M-P – Females In Men’s Professions.” Lilly wasn’t impressed with my taste in jokes.

“Stop labeling,” she said. “I lease bodies.”

“It’s just your job,” I said, head bobbling, as if it was no biggie that she was a sex trafficker. “I’ll call you whatever you want.”

“Never mind. Fimp is fine.”

“So, how’s business?”

Lilly shrugged, “Not terrible so far.”

“Hopefully, it stays that way,” I said feeling like I was rooting for a James Bond villain.

“Is it me or is the end of the world taking ages to end?”

“It’s going slow,” I added, “but don’t sound too enthusiastic. Some of us like to live.”

“We barely exist now.”

“As a society?”

“I meant me.”

“You do more than exist, Lilly.”

“I have nobody and got no future.”

“What about Remi?” I said pointing out the obvious.

“She was an accident and she’ll leave me one day. Were you wanted by your parents?”

“As far as I know, but I’ve never asked. I just assumed.”

“I didn’t even know my parents.”

“At least Remi knows you,” I said, unsure of what else to say.

“It’s not a high bar when all you have to do is show up.”

“So, set it higher.”

“This is it for me.”

I had no answer. A part of me wanted to save her but she didn’t want saving, at least not from me. Her life was set in ruins. Mine was not.

***

Lilly explained that she’d fallen into fimping after befriending two sister hookers. One day she found herself scheduling for them and taking her cut, then short leasing her apartment for a few hours a day when the sisters became homeless. It beat minimum wage, she said, but from what I could see she barely made ends meet anyway. I wondered if by barely making it, if by avoiding the glut of money that often follows the exploitation of damaged girls, Lilly wasn’t somehow appeasing her guilt – the guilt of living for nothing. She survived as an ascetic sex trafficker throughout the pandemic.

“I only take what I need,” she said.

“But why not do something else?”

“If I don’t, someone worse will do it anyway,” she said, almost heroically, as if she was somehow saving the girls she fimped out.

We opened two lagers and cheered awkwardly to that. Ours was a friendship founded on warped attraction and necessity. Several times a week, she’d send Remi across the hall to my place when I was off work. My heart bled for the girl. I feared the type of sexuality that she’d unleash on the world after being witness to countless post-coital men in suits coming out of her mom’s apartment on the days I wasn’t around.

***

Summer arrived and Lilly phoned me to meet at the tiny communal pool. She was one hundred and twenty pounds with eyes a tapestry of yellows and greens. On the outside, there was no way to tell she’d birthed Remi. Inside, though, she was a cauldron of bones, hurt, and resentment.

“Pool is closed,” I said as I approached the gate. The water was green algae and neglect.

“I’d like to see our weak management come say something,” she said, again with her cattish smile. I was getting used to her doing this. It was her war face, and she showed it often.

Nobody said anything. The neighbors stared down at us from the balconies. It seemed that everyone had picked up smoking since the lockdown began. After a quick swim, I toweled off and reclined in a beach chair as Lilly and Remi waded in the murky water.

***

Lilly was fair with her workers but she could be as ruthless as any over-empowered misogynist.

“Scabby bitch!” she said to a girl in the hall just after our swim. I was already in my apartment, dry and sipping black coffee. I sprinted to my peephole. The view came into focus right as Lilly smacked a scantily dressed, spotty blonde across the cheek.

“Never again, Abby,” she said.

“Uh-huh,” quaked the girl. The skin around her eyes sagged from tears and abuse. A constellation of scabs was splattered around her shoulder and ribs, probably from severe acne. She shuffled off cradling her jaw.

Lilly shouted at my door, “Get out here, turd. I know you’re listening.”

I stepped out, face flushed, as the girl reached the exit. I said, “What happened?”

“Abby is pregnant. Again.”

“Damn.”

She then said “So am I” with such force that the echoes in the hall flatlined for a split second before resonating through the hallways, hallways which acted as the connective yet congealed arteries of our building.

“Is it mine?” I joked.

Lilly said nothing. The next time I saw her she’d already gotten rid of it.

***

I had watched Remi all week. She’d been sick with flu or COVID. There were no hospitals that would admit anyone who looked less than half dead. We all ate off-brand chicken soup and drank sports drinks. That’s all we could get our hands on. Store shelves were bare because of the mass hording all over the nation.

Lilly walked into my place looking brittle from the wintry rain. She glanced at Remi who knew better than to approach her mom at that moment, so she turned back to the Rainbow Brite rerun blaring on the television.

“Sorry, Lee,” Lilly said. “Can’t pay you today. It’s a wasteland out there.”

“This one’s on me.”

She went red. “I don’t need pity.”

“I want to help.”

“I don’t need that either,” she said, stone-faced.

Instead of throwing me out, she gripped my hand, led me into the next room and pointed toward my rumpled bed.

“We shouldn’t,” I said.

“Undress now,” she said sternly.

I couldn’t deny her. She needed me when she needed me.

She reached for some Cuervo by the nightstand and said, “Drink.”

Anxiety made me shudder, but the tequila began to warm everything else – except my heart.

“We don’t need to do this.”

“I need the money,” she said.  

“I can’t pay you,” I said, appalled at what she was suggesting.

“No, idiot. Scabby bet me a fifty to screw my dorky sitter.”

“Scabby?”

“My girl, Scabby Abby. Keep up, get it up, and put it in, Lee.”

***

“It’s not yours,” Lilly said, as I glared at a pregnancy test on her table.

“Sorry,” I said, unsure why I was apologizing.

“You’re home free,” she said with a sweep of her hand, just before lighting a cigarette. Every move she made in the bedroom and life was plastic and cosmic.

There were no laws scary enough to protect the baby in Lilly’s belly from the wrath of her life’s habits. She would smoke it into deformity one calloused puff at a time. How Remi had made it, I had no clue.

“Whose is it?”

“It’s the plumber’s.”

“Isn’t Remi’s dad a plumber?”

“This is a different plumber.”

“You have a thing for plumbers?”

“Don’t be smug, Lee,” Lilly snapped. “I’m knocked up but I ain’t dumb. I know what I did.”

I almost apologized again but the flash of hurt in her eyes shut me up.

***

She told me she’d terminated the second pregnancy as we stood on the roof of our five-story building, while leaning against a gray railing pocked with rust. The usual shredded street litter had been replaced by crushed masks and vinyl gloves. I hated the neighborhood. I hated New York. It was apocalyptic. You could wear a mask and hood and easily loot a store. Thanks to pandemic mandates, we were in the throes of a robbery renaissance. It was dawn and, for a second, I wanted to die right there, with the sun, with the earth, with humanity.

“Have you seen Planet of the Apes?” Lilly said. “It should have been called Planet of the Prick.”

I laughed before saying, “Why?”

“C’mon. It’s about a hairy-chested dude who invades an ape planet. He spends his time cheating the system and trying to kiss ape women who think he’s damn ugly.”

“That’s one interpretation.”

“My point, is that men are cheaters even when they imagine other worlds.

“We aren’t all like that.”

“Here,” she said while gesturing elegantly toward her bedroom window, “all men are created equal. Even you, Lee.”

“I’m not like them.”

“All men pay, one way or another.”

“That’s abysmal.”

“So is sex,” she said, “and love.” There was an early morning fog creeping through the city which made her words seem mystical.

“My heart is sprouting thorns as we speak,” I said to avoid further exposing Lilly’s frayed spirit.

***

  Lilly was pregnant again months later. Nonessential services that had been suspended were temporarily restored but the media was already telling us to brace for a second wave that would kill us even more than the last. The quarantine would soon be doubly enforced.

“I’m a regular here,” she said flatly, as she filled out the intake paperwork at the clinic. “This is my Cheers.”

“I watched that show as a kid,” I said, before asking her again, jokingly, “You sure this one isn’t mine?”

She stopped writing and looked dead into my eyes, “No chance, you self-righteous ape.”

They wheeled her out in a chair an hour later. She’d waited too many weeks and couldn’t take the pills. Remi asked what was wrong with her mom but I ignored her. She would need to get used to life’s indifferences anyway.

I helped Lilly into my junker, strapped Remi in, and then plopped myself down behind the wheel. I glanced at them before starting the engine. I was friends with a fiend, and I was raising a girl who would probably burn the world down. But I didn’t care. This was my place for now.

***

“Lee,” said Lilly. “Stay for a while.”

“Okay,” I said, and I did.

“I just want to be erased sometimes.”

“The pandemic is wrecking everything anyway. We’ll all be gone soon at this rate.”

“Not fast enough.”

“It could be worse. You could suddenly wake up on a planet where apes rule and pricks are heroes.”

“I wake up to that every day,” she said before looking daggers at me and adding, “Prick.”

We both laughed for a moment before I said, “Cheers,” and held up my mug.

“Cheers,” Lilly said with her usual cattish smile.

The charge of her pain was too much for my heart to wrap around. Friends is all we’d ever be. We continued like this for several more months until one day I crossed the hall and they were gone. Lilly had talked about moving to Florida where they’d recently announced that they would reopen despite the virus – no more lockdowns or quarantines. Herd immunity was their solution. The nation held its breath in anticipation of the geriatric body count. Mobile morgues were already en route.


R.F. Gonzalez was born in Nicaragua. After living in Europe and Central America, he moved to the United States where he works as a writing instructor, investor, and writer. He has written several short stories and two books, an anti-love story and an anthropology text. His work can be viewed at https://www.rfgonzalez.com/.

2021 Contributing Writers Pandemic Prose

A Yoga Teacher’s Journey

Written by Sanaz Busink

Due to COVID 19 we are now in lockdown and we have decided to close our yoga studio doors until further notice, however, most of our classes will be transitioning to an online platform.

Stay home and be kind.

Namaste”

This was the email I got one dark cold winter morning from the studio where I had been happily teaching yoga. My bottom lip drew away from my motionless top lip, as I stood there, reading, and rereading the words on my computer screen.

“transitioning to an on-line platform, on-line platform, onnn-linnnne platforrrrrmmmmmm.”

These tiny words on the screen tumbled and turned in my head like a cat watching a front-loading washing machine. Terrified, fascinated, and yet hopeful to be able to play with whatever is in there once the cycle is over and the door opens.

I have always been referred to, as, adaptable and fluid like water…, until March of 2020 when the coronavirus took over the whole world by surprise and my yoga career went from… in-person hugs, smelling coffee breath good morning’s, and fresh oat porridge smell lingering on clothes.

The symphony of inhales and exhales and spontaneous sighs during class, the tastes of lavender tea and dark chocolate shared after practice, and the beautiful, open, sacred yoga studio becoming an online 2-dimensional space.

A vast intangible place and space where energy hits a whirlpool of buzzing noises and cloud storage spaces of chaos zooming in and out.

In the years and months before this devastating virus introduced itself to humankind, I had a habit of spoiling my students. By bringing in little warm face cloths to class, covered in immune-boosting essential oils, handing them out on a silver tray at the end of our practice.

I hugged some of them upon arrival with a smile, as if I was offering to take-off their pain and suffering as a good host would offer to hang her guests’ heavy coat.

So, my world crumbled when I had to transition from teaching yoga in an intimate warm studio space and move into a cold flat world behind a tiny screen.

That is when I realized that I am being tested, the water in me has hit a dam, and if I do not make the right choices I will either turn into a ditch, a swamp, or simply a stagnant body of water and eventually rot, dry and die.

I am mostly talking about my drive to teach yoga, my passion for helping my students find their own unique rhythmic breath.

And in helping them angulate their spine with organic movements, poetic arm and leg explorations.

To give guidance and let them tap into their own intuition and their body’s intelligence during a yoga practice on their mat and off their mat in life.

I help my clients find their path to self-discovery, self-love, and self-healing through guided meditation and yoga, the union of body, breath, mind, soul, and spirit.

Meanwhile, teaching intuitive functional yoga online appeared to be vastly different and difficult for the fluid me. I had to find a way to save myself first, before holding space and offering a helping hand to others.

My first attempt in teaching yoga online failed miserably., The studio internet was weak, so the video would cut in and out, the room was not equipped with proper bright light so it was hard for my students to see me., I could not play music for them as the sound waves appeared weak and muffled on their end, my voice was too soft; I had to basically shout.

I developed a sore throat for the first four months of teaching yoga online which I found out later was the result of my speaking in a higher tone than I had ever used in the last 45 years of my life.

I had to adapt., I needed to take time to investigate and to rethink my steps forward., Creativity became my ally, the world slowing down, and quieting, became a guide. Nature migrating back home as seasons changed from winter to spring and long walks instead of short drives became my daily meditation.

I remembered that as a kid I used to mind read for fun. I used to be able to sit in my room and visualize my best friend in her room and write down what she was thinking about or even doing at that moment. The next day I would ask her about her previous day, and she would confirm that I had time-traveled and mind-read.

So, what’s different now? I asked myself one day as I sat in meditation, crying.

I did not want to read anyone’s mind or sit and meditate on what they are doing at that moment, but I needed to send and spread out my energetic webbing and connect with my students through a little stamp size window on my computer screen. I needed to feel their pain, their sorrow, their joy, and their presence.

But this time just by looking through the computer at their slice of life…corner of the room, or their ceiling fan in their living room, or only getting a glimpse of their knees moving like windshield wipers; at times at their curious cat or mischievous dog checking out the little camera on their computer.

Reciting poems in class changed to prayers. Prayers for one another, and for the entire world.

I eventually picked up on my students’ frequency and let them lead me again while I taught in an empty studio.

Practicing beside a breathing sapphire green plant, a wooden statue of the Buddha and a brass singing bowl that has not been rung for a while. As I teach in this almost empty studio, I hear my own voice echo back against the bare white walls, standing tall in tree pose, keeping me company.

All these years as a yoga teacher I have been teaching people based on their energetic frequencies that they come to class with. They have been leading me and not the other way around.

I realized that I am adaptable, but it takes a bit of time, momentum, and recentering.

I found that I actually don’t like forced change in my stable life, and I resist it with all my body and mind.

I discovered that if I let my heart lead me, then I always find the best path to where I am going.

All I have to do, is, JUST SHOW UP!

I realized that I am actually, a hugger.

I like that extra bit of connection, that extra moment of squeeze you give a loved one to let them know that you care for them and that they are special to you.

I adapted.

I adapted to the ‘voluntold’ universal change. At least I never signed up for this change. I had been happy with the way things were, but with time, the unnormal became the new normal. And we all adapted.

As I have adapted to change in my yogic world, and I feel pride in myself and my students.

There have been few changes in my personal life during this time, and I have learned that having the love of my life work from home and spending every moment of the day with him has been a blessing and I love every minute of it.

The universal slowing down and the fewer hours spent window shopping or spending time and money in local shops and restaurants has opened more space for my practice, for writing, reading, and painting.

And the social distancing has not bothered me one bit as I have always walked through life being mindful of others and taking good care of my mental and physical health.

The big self-discovery was that I love to be loved by people I care for, and these people are my beloved students, my dear family, and friends. I discovered the way I used to show love was by making them something or buying them something and now there is no need for that.

I find that I show my love through kind words and true eye to eye connections and smiles., Through listening and allowing space for silence from behind a breathing mask at and two meters apart…


Sanaz Busink is a Canadian artist living her dream in Penticton BC with her husband, their two rescue dogs and their cat, Han Solo. Her days are filled teaching yoga and meditation, writing poetry and prose, painting, pottery, and embracing nature.

2021 Contributing Writers Pandemic Prose

Excerpt from Anarchist, Republican… Assassin

Written by Jeff Rasley 

I retired two years before the lockdown, when I hit sixty-eight. Sherry – that’s my wife – and I had a lot of plans for traveling and things we wanted to do in retirement, but then she died in 2019, less than a year into it. The cancer came fast and furious. Sherry was dead less than two months after the diagnosis.

I was finally getting back on my feet, trying to resume some semblance of a social life a year after Sherry’s death. Then, the pandemic struck. My life came to a screeching halt again, just after I was starting to get out and see old friends and make new ones at the coffee shop and bar where I used to hang out.

Sitting home alone during the lockdown, I started feeling irrationally irritable and had terrible mood swings. One day, I threw the toaster down on the kitchen floor and then stomped on it. I was furious, because two pieces of toast burned. I probably set the timer on for too long, but I didn’t care whether it was my fault or the toaster’s. I just wanted to smash the damn thing. A couple days later, I went outside through the front door and then went around back to survey the condition of the backyard lawn. I thought the backdoor into the screened-in porch was unlocked, but it wasn’t. Ordinarily, that would have been mildly irritating. I would have grunted and then walked back around the house to the front door. But I was so upset I started pulling on the handle of the screen door as hard as I could. When I couldn’t break the lock, I drove my fist through the screen and unlocked the door. I didn’t fix the screen.

I sat in front of the TV hour after hour watching the news about how Trump was fucking up the government’s response to the spreading coronavirus infection. Why didn’t he invoke the federal government’s power under the Defense Production Act as soon as the virus hit Washington State in January? All the experts knew how fast-spreading and dangerous this virus could be. But he ignored the CDC’s advice and downplayed the risk to the nation’s health. Not until mid-April, when it was way too late, did Trump finally use some of the government’s power under the DPA, and even then it’s a half-assed measure. There wasn’t enough testing. There weren’t enough ventilators, not enough PPE, not enough swabs. What the hell was he thinking?

The number of infections kept rising. By the end of March the US led the world in infections and deaths caused by the virus. What does Trump do? He refuses to wear a mask. He’s not going to look like a weakling. Testing? Overrated. It increases the number of infections. Why doesn’t the country have enough PPE and ventilators? Obama’s fault. The President is in charge, but if there’s any failure, it’s the fault of governors and mayors.

He kept repeating his mantra, “The situation is under control.” Pence’s team will whip the virus. If they don’t, well, Jared’s team will. This virus isn’t as bad as the flu. America always wins. Those people wearing masks are doing it to spite me, Donald J. Trump, the greatest President in history. “The situation is under control.”

But the deaths kept mounting. It surpassed annual deaths from auto accidents, 34,000. It surpassed US deaths in the Vietnam War, 58,000. It surpassed the total deaths of US soldiers in World War I, 116,500, and it kept going up. World War II deaths, here we come! Spanish Flu deaths, hah! We’ll beat you too. America will be Number One with Donald J. Trump, the greatest President in history, leading us!

What the fuck!? This is the United States of America! We’re supposed to have the best healthcare in the world, the best of everything. Yeah, Trump made America great again. We’re Number One in coronavirus infections and deaths.

I was getting angrier and angrier about how badly Trump was handling the pandemic. And lonelier and lonelier locked down at home with no one to talk to.

After spending all day switching back and forth among the cable news networks on TV, I’d turn off the television and get on my laptop and rant on Twitter about what an idiot the President is. That was my lockdown life. That’s all there was to it.

When Trump started puffing hydroxychloroquine as a cure, I was sure he, or Jared and Ivanka, owned stock in a company that makes the drug. Why not? He’s tried to sell every product under the sun with his Trump brand. And then, he mused on national TV about sticking a UV light down your gullet and drinking Clorox as a cure. Presidents aren’t supposed to muse about hair-brain schemes that will get some numbskull killed when he burns his throat with a tanning lamp or poisons himself with laundry bleach.

But there was Trump on the tube again claiming victory over the virus. The jobs report was better than expected, so that proves the Trump-Pence team is winning. Hooray! The economy is already recovering. The CARES Act is working. He says America is coming back greater than ever. And by the way, Donald J. Trump has done more for African-Americans than any US president. Lincoln? All he did was free the slaves. Donald J. Trump gave ‘em all jobs.

I turned off the TV and opened Twitter. What did I find? All these Trumpers are praising the President. “The situation is under control.” He’s saving us from the virus! He’s saving our jobs and the economy! Don’t believe those traitors in the media and that Dr. Fauci, who says things are getting worse. God chose Donald J. Trump for this moment. He has it under control.

Winter has passed and it’s spring, but I am cycling farther and farther down and I can’t stop it. Trump’s lies and crazy talk haven’t stopped. When the demonstrations started in Minneapolis after George Floyd was killed by that cop, something snapped in me and I really lost control.

I was losing track of what time it is. I mean, like, what year is it? Is Lyndon Johnson the President? I can hear my dad yelling to turn off the boob tube. But I can’t turn it off.

The talking heads on CNN are talking about the Kerner Commission Report. They keep saying the findings of the Kerner Report are still true today. It must be 1967? They say there are two Americas, one black and the other white. Black America is ripped off every which way, income, housing, job opportunity, education; the system is rigged against you, if you’re black. You can’t trust the police. They aren’t there to protect and serve, if you’re black. All these images of police beating or killing unarmed black people scroll across my TV set; there’s Rodney King, Malice Wayne Green, Abner Louima, Amadou Diallo, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor …

Sitting alone every day staring at my TV watching the street clashes between protesters and cops, and then shops going up in flames, stores and cop cars vandalized, looters busting out windows and jumping out of stores with stolen goods. I’m losing my grounding in the present. This must be 1968. I was an anarchist revolutionary then, but I’m an establishment Republican, if this is 2020. But what year is it? Who am I?

There he is on TV again! That big orange clown figure with that bloated face and ridiculous hair. He’s babbling about MAGA loves black people.

That’s it. I know what I have to do. I’m no longer a retired businessman and country-club Republican. I am nineteen years old, a militant, an anarchist.

I pack the car. I put my twelve-gauge bolt-action shotgun in the trunk. I don’t know how long it takes. I don’t know how many times I stop. I arrive in Washington D.C. What’s the date? June first, 2020? No, it’s 1968.

I smell tear gas in the air. It draws me toward the White House. I walk in that direction. I’m dressed in black with a black bandana covering my face. There are lots of demonstrators around the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue. Some are yelling at cops in Lafayette Square across from the White House. People are shouting, chanting, screaming. Cops with shields and batons are lined up confronting the protesters.

Then it happens. It’s around six thirty. Secret Service agents, military police, Park Police, National Guardsmen, and Arlington County Police all in riot gear advance on the demonstrators in Lafayette Square. A Black Hawk helicopter swoops out of the sky and hovers fifteen feet above ground blasting gusts of wind that snap tree limbs and send volleys of dust and broken glass-like shrapnel tearing through the crowd of protesters. People are screaming and running for cover in panic and confusion.

There wasn’t any violent activity going on, just chanting and singing, people waving signs. But the forces of The Man are advancing. They shoot smoke canisters. They’re pushing the crowd of people with their shields. Protesters trip over each other trying to back away. People on the ground are beaten with batons. Heads, elbows, and knees are bleeding in the street. Cops shoot pepper balls. Horses charge defenseless demonstrators and trample them underfoot. Everyone is forced out of the park into H Street. A few protesters throw water bottles, but no one fights back. The pigs keep advancing and beating helpless protesters holding up their arms to shield their heads from baton blows.

I jog around past the melee on H Street, south past the White House grounds skirting the fence along the west and south lawns, and then toward the statue of Andrew Jackson on horseback. Lafayette Square is deserted now. I run through the little park. I sneak across H Street. I’m at the opposite end of the street from where the security forces are still attacking, pushing, and pummeling the protesters. I hide behind a large oak tree on the southeast corner of St. John’s Church’s grounds.

I have a clear view of The Man as he walks up to the parish house of St. John’s Church. There’s a group of men with the Evil One. I know I should recognize them from TV. Is that little Billy Barr? No matter. My mind is buzzing too much to get a clear signal. Two blond women are in the group. One is The Daughter. Then, He steps away from the group. He’s carrying a book. Yes! It’s The Bible. He’s standing there holding The Book upside down. The final signal!

I aim and pull the trigger. What? Nothing happened. Could it be? I shoot the bolt. There’s no shell in the chamber. Some demon must have stolen my ammunition. The gun isn’t loaded. I scrounge through my pockets. No cartridges there. Oh yeah, now I remember. We only fight with handheld weapons. So that’s what this is. It’s not a gun. It’s a club.

I let out a war cry and run toward The Man holding The Book. Before he can turn to see death approaching, something happens to me. I’m flying. No, I’m falling. Did something hit me? I didn’t see it.


Jeff Rasley is a retired lawyer and long-time social activist. He is a director of 6 nonprofit organizations and has taught classes on community development at Butler and Marian Universities. Anarchist, Republican… Assassin is his 11th book.