June 26 | Scott Radway

 

My driving companion had grown still.

“Damnit, Ricky,” I said, eyeing the bloody smear on the plexiglass divider. “That’s going to cost you.” Under his name I wrote: $35, wet wipes. “Sorry, I meant Rob.” I double-underlined the name as a reminder. But Rob wouldn’t be offended if I called him Ricky, Roger or Rita—he had knocked himself unconscious in the backseat.

It still amazed me how so many people had the will to pay you with one hand and fight you with the other.

I threw the notebook back into the suitcase, next to the bag of mother’s day cards I had recently purchased. I’d actually been hoping to get Rob’s opinion on them, but he wasn’t proving himself to be much help just then.

My mother, she doesn’t go for the sappy cards. “This world is going to hell,” she told me more than once. “So enough with that sentimental bullshit. Make me laugh, or don’t bother.”

It was a fair point, I suppose. Laughing was cathartic. And on the day everything had changed, when the country was reeling from its latest one-two punch—a vice president laid up by the virus, his boss found hiding in the White House’s underground bunker like a cornered animal, threatening to shoot anyone who came within spitting distance—no one had laughed harder than my mother. Her parents had lived through two world wars, the Great Depression and the Influenza Pandemic. “It serves him right, getting sick like that,” she’d said. “He was reckless and proud.” That was as serious as she ever got, and a moment later she was cackling again.

The quarantine room wasn’t so much a room as a row,  a series of cages with corrugated metal doors controlled from outside. The metal doors were probably unnecessary—most of the people I picked up wanted to get better. It certainly beat the alternative. Still, two weeks without freedoms was difficult for almost anyone. I know I wouldn’t be able to do it and keep my composure.

The next day, encouraged by a full breakfast and numerous cups of coffee, Rob seemed clear-headed as he rubbed his new scar. I showed him the three cards I had chosen—two humorous ones with talking animals, and one sentimental one I couldn’t resist—and we talked for awhile through the intercom.

“I used to do heroin,” he said. “I thought that was bad, but this…this is worse.”

I knew he wasn’t talking about the cage.

“It’s like I just feel this rage building up inside of me, you know? I start remembering back when we could go to restaurants, or shopping malls, or bars. And I think, ‘would it really be so bad? Just once?’”

“You know people like us can’t go there anymore.”

“I know. You’re lucky you at least got a job working for those assholes.”

“Lucky?”

“Yeah, you can go out with immunity with that government badge. No prison time for you.”

“I’m a yellow badge. I can’t go to those places any more than you can.”

“Still. Maybe I could get your job someday.”

“The temptation would kill you.”

Rob took another sip of his coffee. “So, the chihuahua?”

I studied the three cards a final time, then nodded. “Yeah, she’ll like that one.” I sprayed the card with disinfectant and placed it inside a sterilized envelope with mom’s address already printed on the outside, then touched it to my face mask to imitate a kiss.

When the next call came in, I dropped the envelope in the mailbox on my way out.