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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

Dear Mr. Corona

Written by Neelam Epstein Mukherjee

It was the morning of April 15th when I first saw Mr. Corona. His body was a particularly ugly shade of green with sharp spikes sticking out of his head. But unlike regular monsters, he was small and had an almost kind face. I was playing with John in our front yard with a toy water gun. We were running around gleefully, spraying water on each other, and creating quite a ruckus. It was Wednesday morning but these days we no longer have school, and the rules at home were different. We had to do our regular school assignments at home, but the schedule was more lenient.

“John, did you see? I saw him. I saw him!” I yelled, jumping up and down.

“Who? What are you talking about? And come back here. Don’t go out on the streets. Mom will not like it.” John replied with the usual haughtiness of an elder brother, given the task of keeping an eye out for the younger sibling.

 “It was Mr. Corona. I saw him coming out from Mr. Radley’s house. I need to tell mom. She must take care of Mr. Radley.”

Mom always takes care of people. Even though we were all at home, mom still went to work every day to fight Mr. Corona. When Mr. Corona did not like someone, they ended up with a boo-boo in the hospital. Mom then helped them to treat their boo-boos so that they could get better. 

I would often ask mom “Why can’t their moms take care of them? Are their moms not special like you?”

Mom would laugh and pat my head and say “They are, baby girl. All moms are special, but God has chosen a few of us to take care of people when their moms can’t be there.”

“So, you just kiss their boo-boo and they get better?”

My mom would shake her head and reply, “No sweetie, Mr. Corona does not like people to hug or kiss.”

 “I don’t like Mr. Corona, he sounds mean.” I would pout. “And he also closed my school.”

Right now, though, I was jumping up and down excitedly.

“Don’t talk nonsense, Bella, I told you it’s a virus. You can’t see it.” John gave me an irritated look.

“You don’t know anything; I am going inside to tell mom.” I said adamantly and dashed to our living room.

Mom was making stir fry, my favorite dish, when I walked into the kitchen.

“Mom, I saw Mr. Corona at Mr. Radley’s house. He did not look too scary.”

 My mom laughed and flopped my hair.

 “Did you tell him anything?”

“No mom, he was too far away. I wanted to tell him something important.”

My mom thought about it for a moment,

“Umm, why don’t you write him a letter? Then, maybe we can ask Fairy T to deliver it to him.”

“Yes, that’s a good idea mom! I will write him a letter.”

Once in my room, I made sure that the doors were securely shut so that no one, especially John, could disrupt my critical mission. I brought out all my poster supplies — boards, sharpies, sparkly pens, and my most precious possession — my crayon box of 72 colors, which dad gave me on my last birthday. Finally, convinced that I had all the needed supplies and everything was secure and safe, I started writing:

Dear Mr. Corona,

I am Annabelle. But my family and friends call me Bella. I am in the third grade and my teacher, Miss Honey, says that I am her favorite student. I am a good girl, Mr. Corona, so, I hope you will listen to my request. I know you are in a bad mood and unhappy with the world. So, you are punishing everyone by giving them boo-boos. But I have been very good this year. Even without classes, I completed all my homework, which mom and dad gave me.

I have a request Mr. Corona. My birthday is in 2 weeks and I always have lots of fun with my friends at school, and grandma at her house. Can you please leave so that my school can open, and I can also go visit my grannie? I promise I will  behave well throughout the year and will not even argue with John. Please, Mr. Corona! Please don’t make me spend my birthday by myself.

Love,

Annabelle.

To complete the letter, I drew a smiley face and a rainbow at the end. I also wrote Mr. Corona in sparkly green to match the color of his body.

I woke up feeling excited the next morning. I could hear mom getting ready for work. I rushed to her room and showed her my letter. My mom smiled as she read it.

“That’s a very pretty letter, Bella. I am sure Mr. Corona will consider it. Why don’t we keep it underneath your bed tonight, so Fairy T can take it and deliver it to him? Does that sound good?”

I gave her a big nod and said,“Yes, mom that’s good. Then I can tell John too and he will be sorry that he ever made fun of my idea.”

My Mom patted my back and said, “Ok Bella, I must leave now. You be a good girl for dad today, ok.” She left, kissing me goodbye.

That night, right after I had my dinner, I put my letter in a big envelope that I took from dad’s office. I wrote “To Mr. Corona” and put it under my bed. Next morning, to my relief, it was gone. I was happy that it was in the safe hands of Fairy T, and Mr. Corona would get it soon.

Two weeks later my birthday came but I still did not hear anything back from Mr. Corona. My school was still closed. I was still not allowed to visit any of my friends or grannie.

We were all sitting to eat breakfast on Sunday. Mom had taken the day off to celebrate my birthday and made us a big breakfast. We had a whole lot of different dishes and my favorite blueberry pancakes.

“Wow Jenny. This is quite a spread.” My dad said sitting down at the table.

 “I think we all needed a good hearty family breakfast to start off Bella’s birthday.” Mom said, with a big smile.

 She was about to sit down where her phone rang.

“What, when, where are they taking her? Yes ok, I will be there, but I don’t think they are allowing any visitors.”

 I could see from her face that she was worried and turned to dad and said in a very serious voice,

 “That was James. They think mom may have caught it. She has all the symptoms and was having breathing difficulty in the morning. They hospitalized her just now. She is in the ICU.”

Mom left, hardly touching the huge breakfast she had prepared. I was fuming inside at Mr. Corona. How could he do this? He not only did not leave but now had made my most favorite person sick.

My birthday turned out to be more of a nightmare. Mom had rushed to meet the doctors at grannie’s hospital. John had shut himself off in his room with his Playstation in some online game party. I was left with dad who tried hard to cheer me up. But even my new Frozen doll set failed to interest me.

Finally, I heard mom’s car in the driveway and rushed to greet her. My mom smiled and said,

“I know you did not have a good birthday dear, but I got something special for you.” She said, shutting the car door.

“What? Mom?”

She brought out a letter.

“Grannie gave it to Uncle Jammy.” She said handing it to me.

 I took the letter and my eyes almost bulged out of its sockets.

“But mom, it says Mr. Corona.”

“I know.” She smiled.

“Maybe Mr. Corona gave it to grannie. I am just the messenger. You can read and tell me what he wrote.”

I could not contain my excitement and excused myself to go to my room to read the letter by myself. The letter was written on a hospital letterhead and seemed to be written in haste. But nevertheless, I started reading it.

Dear Bella,

This is Mr. Corona. Thank you for writing to me. I liked your pink paper and the pretty green color; I am happy you did not hate me because I look different. I apologize that your school is closed, and you have not seen your friends in a long time. I am sorry you are always stuck at home and now your grannie is sick on your birthday and you can’t visit her house like you do every year. I know the world is in chaos and, it’s especially hard for children like you. But I came here as a reminder to this world to slow down and set its priorities straight. Human greed one day will lead to its own destruction; and me and this pandemic are no different. Fortunately, kids like you will always have the power to change that. You are a good girl, Bella, and I know one day you will become a great woman. Just remember that you have all the tools within yourself to fight any evil. Selfishness landed us where we are now and if we keep on thinking just about ourselves, we will never win this battle. So, plant that tree and wear that mask but as an amazing lady once said, “do it in a way that makes others want to join you rather than fight you.” As you grow old, you will come across all types of people, some like you and some very different. Don’t be afraid. Remember that we are more similar than we realize, there is more that unites us than what divides us. If you disagree with someone, try to express your views with respect. Be humble, be respectful but don’t be afraid to use your voice if you see something wrong. Unfortunately, Bella I can’t tell you when I will be gone from this world, all I know is I will go when people stop being selfish and start working together. Till then, you must be patient and take care of your parents and brother.

Sadly yours,

Mr. Corona

P.S. I met your grandmother in the hospital. I think she will be ok but if not, she wanted me to tell you that you are the bravest girl she knows and nothing in her life has made her happier than to be your grannie. She loves you dearly Bella!

At that moment I heard a knock on the door and my mom peeped in.

“Oh, sweet girl, are you ok?”

I had not realized when my eyes teared up, but I felt that my face was wet now. My mom put me on her lap and kissed my forehead, and we stayed like that for a while. “How do you feel dear?”

Wiping my tears, I could only come up with one word “Hopeful.” Then I added, “Mom, I think we are going to be ok.”

At that, my mom hugged me even tighter and said, “I needed to hear that today baby girl; you have no idea how badly I needed to hear that today.”


Dr. Neelam Epstein Mukherjee works in cancer research but her parents and wife, Camela, inspire her to continue writing. “Dear Mr. Corona” focuses on the pandemic from a child’s perspective.