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2020 Contributing Writers Pandemic Prose

Whisky

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.

2020 Pandemic Phillip Morris Prose

The Pit

Written by Phillip Morris

A mass of people wait in a concrete pit open to the wind and rain the dim sun promises to bring. 

Most of the people are black and brown, though there are a few that could pass if they didn’t speak with such a heavy accent. More languages are known between them than there are people in the pit, and yet those in the pit almost never speak to each other. They remain stuck in their spheres of solitude.

There is just enough room for everyone to sit down on the bare ground. Only the smallest among them can stretch out straight. The rest must curl-up on themselves in dirt that’s dark and muddy from still sticking human waste. 

A young mother, is given room to lay with her weakly crying child next to a teen, too skinny and dirty to betray their gender, who scratches another tick in the wall. 

It’s been 124 days by their count. 

Some people came earlier, others came later. A minority were counting the days even before arriving at the pit. Fewer still don’t bother counting at all because all that matters is that this is the end. 

Beyond the wall, the sound of a monstrous machine grows louder. It’s engine roars and echoes inside of the pit. It sounds like it has the power to break through the concrete wall, instead, it stops just beyond. 

From somewhere out of sight a guard and his dog appear on the wall. 

Covered head to toe in blood-red armor the guard patrols unarmed. It’s only ever a single guard per pit, and even that is just for show, there’s little that needs monitoring. It takes four people standing on each other’s shoulders to send a fifth over the top. It’s only ever tried once per pit. Then it becomes clear to everyone below that they’ll never be faster than the lid snapping closed. 

The guard doesn’t need a weapon because his dog is always at his side. As loyal as it is fierce, this dog is the greatest weapon ever made through selective breeding, cybernetics, and genetic engineering. So much so, that no one in the pit can recognize it as a dog. 

Their dogs played with their children and protected their homes. However, this thing on the wall must be kept far away from children and all things precious.

The guard and his dog patrol the perimeter of the concrete pit. Its walls are thick enough that he and the dog can walk comfortably side by side. 

While the man’s on the outer edge, looking beyond, the dog splits its attention between the guard and the people in the pit whose gaze it greets with a growl in the back of its throat, even as they do their best to keep to the side opposite the patrol. 

Someone slips in the filth as the crowd moves around the pit and the dog snaps to attack position, barking loudly with its teeth full bare. The guard stops to look on as the person scrambles back into the throng of pitiful people. The dog reverts back to its perpetual growl.

The guard stops near to where the engine beyond the pit has been idling loudly. A signal from the guard and the engine kicks into gear, this time accompanied by the sound of hydraulics raising something large. 

The dog is barking again. Its joined by another, and another, and another, until its a deafening, terrifying chorus that drowns out all else before a heavy slab of metal slams onto concrete, releasing cries and screams into the mix, and masking the sound of thunder from the clouds bursting above. 

Then there they are, the screaming crying people, standing in the rain on the edge of the pit. Throngs of people. Brown, black, and white people. Miserable people, getting wet like those in the pit. Stopped at the edge, too scared to go forward though there’s clearly nowhere else to go as the guards and dogs corral them in. 

Too well trained to ever break the rules, the dogs snap at the legs, fingers, and toes of those on the edge. Close enough that they can feel the heat of the dogs’ breath, but never enough to claim they’ve been bitten. 

Those at the very edge and close to falling turn around. They use their arms and their pleas to hold the rest back. But there’s too many and their numbers are growing. 

The weakest go over, tearing open the floodgates, so the rest fall, push, or are shoved into the pit. The first to land are crushed beneath those that follow. Their blood mixing with the mud.

Phillip Morris is a Californian living in Amsterdam. When he’s not writing dry instructions he’s writing colorful fiction.

2020 Contributing Writers Creative Pieces Pandemic Prose

The Rabbit Hole

Written by Caroline Goldberg Igra

I grip the edges of the hole into which I was most brutally pitched weeks ago, and peer over the edge, squinting to block out the impossibly bright light of the sun. I struggle to adjust to what used to be normal and the blurry forms before me begin to take shape, surprising me with their familiarity. The world just outside is one that I recognize; indeed, it’s the very same one I left behind. Still, the idea of resuming the life I was living seems out of the question. How will I ever regain what I have lost? How can I possibly move forward, knowing what I have missed?

I duck my head back inside. It’s safe in here. I’m not sure I’m ready to venture outside. I wander through the chambers, the rooms of my home, finding comfort in what has become my new reality; each space assuming an altered significance, providing a newly-defined need. Fact is, I kind of like it here. What I was sure would be depressing, a mausoleum of lost opportunity, has become the opposite. My life in the deep belly of my home is more than a little wonderful.

I consider whether it’s really worth considering the leap beyond into the new unknown. Maybe it won’t be as terrific as everyone says, maybe it will disappoint by being the same as it’s always been. I need to figure that out. I crawl back up toward the light, plant both hands firmly, and lift my shoulders above the rim, this time taking more than a peek. Scanning the view before me, I find something new. There’s color everywhere. I hadn’t noticed that the first time, when I was still trying to adjust to the light, to focus. Yet now the spectacular rainbow of color–pinks, reds, purples, oranges, and yellows–is impossible to miss. Spring has come without any fanfare, insisting on its inevitability despite humanity’s forced absence. 

Down I go. I’m not ready. I don’t need all that color. I wouldn’t know what to do with it. In any case, I’ve managed to find my own glorious kind of color right here. My kingdom is bursting with multiplicity, shot through with brilliant points of light, heaving and breathing with discovery, exploration, connection, and self-realization. The feelings of isolation, abandonment, and mourning I’d expected when this whole journey began are nowhere to be found. In their stead is a wealth created from sheer willpower, the human need to thrive. My need to thrive. I’ve spent six weeks frolicking in worlds I’d never thought to explore, never taken the time to explore–expanding my mind, challenging my palette, breathing life into words I’d thought exhausted and reigniting connections long dormant. I’ve crossed more borders from within than I ever could have from without. This new world, one of my own design, beautifully competes with the one that is waiting just beyond, challenging its ability to make me smile and laugh; to make me want to get up in the morning. 

Again, I wonder if I’m better off staying put. It’s so hard to decide. I tap the font of renewed strength these last six weeks have provided and force myself to leave the comfort of my very own, now even more beloved, home, launching myself into the new unknown, the one everyone’s talking about, the one everyone has been waiting for. One hearty push and I’ve crossed the border that has protected me. I’m outside. The colors I spotted earlier rush at me from all sides, overwhelming me with their presence, insisting on being noticed. They’re inordinately enticing, so hard to resist. They welcome me back. “You made it!” And while, oh so tempting, exactly what I’d desperately craved when this all began, I hesitate. The magnetic pull of the richness I’ve left behind is too strong to ignore. I glance back over my shoulder at the place from which I’ve come. It’s equally appealing and holds a promise the outside world cannot provide. I turn my back on the beyond and jump back to safety. This rabbit hole is complex and twisted, flawed, and imperfect, but it’s eternally mine.

Caroline Goldberg Igra has published numerous peer-reviewed articles in international, academic art history journals, a book on the work of WWII artist J. D. Kirszenbaum (Somogy Éditions d’Art, 2013) and a novel, “Count to a Thousand,” (Mandolin Publishing, 2018). Caroline blogs for the Times of Israel.

2020 Art Contributing Creators Pandemic Photography

Masked Figure

Photos by Thomas Pickarski

As a traditional landscape artist, recently I yearned to create a visually stunning yet meaningful installation on the landscape. In my photographic Masked Figure series, a human figure depicting reptilian characteristics is portrayed as both witness and victim to the disappearance of life as we know it.

Masked Figure no. 4

Masked Figure no. 5
2020 Article Contributing Writers Pandemic Prose

On Seeking Joy in a Vacuum

Written by Madison Kerlan

I swallow joy in pill-capsules, two a night, hoping that while I sleep—if I sleep—the joy will seep into the empty cavities of my body and stop my bones from trembling in the morning when my dreams of somewhere else dissolve into the reality of here and now—of an entire planet perched precariously on the edge of collapse, gravity distended. Early, before my alarm prods the sleep away, my partner crawls over my blanket-coddled body, an apparition clouded by my night-swept eyelashes, drifting off to work in the remote office of our living room. I smell that smell belonging to only them and think they may someday be the love of my life; I hear a hush, go back to sleep. Go back to sleep, they insist. Joy should live in my chest, wrapped tight against the flesh and pulsing arteries of my heart, but it doesn’t. I lay in bed alone, wondering what the future looks like suspended in the abyss of uncertainty, eyes pointed at the ceiling till my alarm prods my body into mechanical motion.

Winter blends into spring. You can see the fault lines separating and binding them at once, if you look closely: early spring is cold as winter but more hopeful, usually. The tulips in the lawn of my childhood home will bloom soon, usually. Petals crack the skin of the ground. The skin of my knuckles bleed from too much hand washing and not enough lotion. I sit cross-legged with bandaged fingers in unkempt grass, in the lawn of the house I will inhabit for two months—till I have somewhere else to go. An empty carton of almond milk and an empty carton of cigarettes sit a few meters off. I watch the cartons in silence, feeling a beam of sunlight grace the back of my unshaven neck. I wonder who brought them here to commiserate with me and the broken lawn chair at my side, with the tattered seat. You’ve seen some shit, I offer. For a moment, the breeze rustles the dry twigs of the skeleton bushes. We all sit together, thinking about circumstance. Spring blends into winter. I’ve lost track of the days of the week. 

For years, I’ve been collecting joy in Polaroids, a jar of fireflies tucked away on the bookshelf for later. I shake the photo album out onto the carpet to remind myself of it. The joy seeps between my fingers as I hold the corners of the film loose and buzzing in my palms: joy is driving nowhere and ending up in another state just because you can—just because you’re young and the world can afford to unbuckle you from its machinery for twenty-four hours of wandering, of going somewhere else, says a photo of my best friends and I standing, arms raised, on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Joy is a lonely vending machine on the outskirts of town, the pin in the map marking the origin of a proper, rural adventure, says a photo of my favorite person sitting in gravel, can of Sprite in hand, tab popped. Joy is a pair of gardening gloves, roller-skating pads, and a tangled heap of climbing rope, says a photo of a childhood friend crouched beneath the trestle of an abandoned canal bridge, victorious.

Joy is sitting on the balcony alone after midnight, eyeing streetlamps pinpricked along distant roads that curve out of focus.

Joy is in the pinpricks of the fading stick ‘n’ poke on my thigh, dotted by a friend of a friend while I crunched ice cubes horizontal on her kitchen floor. 

Joy is the slap of wet footsteps echoing toward us, a stranger in briefs with an invitation to jump into the lake and the exchange of silent, agreeing nods that follows.

Joy is the crackle of a blown car stereo, resilient against the crescendo of volume.

Joy is the orange of a stolen traffic cone peeking out of the trunk—that gleefully welcomed fifth passenger.

Joy is a misplaced cigar on the dark and grassy crest of Flagstaff Hill, the smoke obscuring low-voiced stories shared in confidence.

Joy is a spoonful of honey and blackberry jam spread thick over buttery morning toast. 

Joy is my mother waiting for me at the edge of the airport terminal, the descent from the escalator and into her arms.

Joy is drive-thru sherbet in the insurmountable heat of summer; leaving pennies on railroad tracks and waiting, cross-legged for hours, ears tuned to the whistle of the next commercial train on its way somewhere else; a beer on the roof of the family bar, waiting up for the long-awaited Sunday sunrise after my last shift of the week.

I lay on the carpet like a chalk outline, lined with evidence of joy. Gathering the photos in my hands, I return the fireflies to their plastic album sleeves—all but one: joy is my grandmother’s wide grin, a black jellybean pressed to her front tooth, says a photo of us holding one another behind the bar counter. Today is her birthday and we are not celebrating this year because she has been dead for months. The illusion dissipates in a plume of smoke. I find the world still ablaze outside my window. I leave the bedroom to join the almond milk, the Marlboros, and the busted lawn chair, eating the blackberries I used to pluck from her garden bushes and watching over deserted city streets, the image of an impending dystopia, the air stale and timeless. To touch a memory does not emulate joy. It emulates the desire for joy. 

I wonder how my desire for joy fits into the puzzled frame of a global crisis; how desire spoils rancid when people around you are dying in the past and the present and the future. When the clouds loom and the city is painted in ruins, overcast and forgotten in isolation. When the grass reaches unkempt and untrampled around your bare ankles, pleading for company. When a centipede steals into the dark polyester of the bedsheets, seeking refuge from somewhere else: you’ve seen some shit, I offer, extending a broken hand. When the posters peel from the ceiling; a mounted record shatters against the dresser; the television grows fussy; the strings of lights swing from the doorframe during the night, which is too quiet even with the windows propped open. It’s an extended metaphor, my partner says. 

We sit on the third step of a wooden-railed staircase, an appendage of the deserted bedroom of a former housemate. Smoke twists and drifts in tendrils rising from a spiraled glass bowl, a potent dose of bud that could be medical grade but isn’t. Stars pocket the space of the sky and I lean back against the ridges of wooden planks, breathing. The constellations seem to line themselves tonight, stars extending, joining hands in a galactic game of connect the dots. My knees bump against the knees beside me, important knees, cherished knees, their knees. They have been talking for a while about the world and its intricate mechanics—about everything and nothing in particular at once—emptying vessels of thoughts like glistening nectar beneath the moonlight. I watch the way their mouth moves as they speak, their upper lip tugging, energized by the bud and a lowered guard. The canvas of stars lines the profile of their face, cross-illuminated by the lamp sitting warm behind the basement windowsill and the lights of tired trucks rumbling down empty 3am highways, en route somewhere else. This is a nice memory, they say at last, clasping my knee, head tilted upward. I feel joy for the first time in weeks and I hold onto it tight, arms wrapped around their shoulders in the silent hum of the evening, the soothing rush of the wind.

Every so often, joy turns up in the crevices of small moments, looking only slightly different from before. I can feel it in the familiar laughter of my therapist over the phone; in my professor introducing their dog in the last thirty seconds of a pre-recorded lecture; in wearing overalls and sandals on the porch; in the morning fire alarm sounding like clockwork when my partner fries bacon; in rolling over into them in the middle of the night and being lulled back to sleep by the rhythm of their rising chest; in the words I love you ringing from my best friend’s mouth; in smoking a joint with my housemates, wrapped in blankets from the couch; in watching the reliable sunrise seep through the bedroom window; in listening to music with the forgotten blades of grass and the trash on the back lawn. The world may feel different, but the air is the same and every evening the stars return to the sky again. Joy is tender, fragile, and fleeting, but joy is not gone. If you’re quiet, you can still find joy at the bottom of a pot of coffee or between the folds of fresh linens, in the breeze of a mild afternoon or waiting at the edge of the porch steps after rainfall, in the echo of a familiar voice and the brush of cherished knees against your own, nudging your mind alive, reminding you of what remains in the rubble. To desire joy amid suffering is to remain hopeful for all that is left.

Madison Kerlan studies non-fiction writing and gender. They are a staff writer for Sampsonia Way Magazine.