Underlying Condition

A short story by R.M. Dolin

Tara waits for a signal from the traffic control monitor before stepping into the “entrance only” side of the home improvement store. She effectively uses the time it takes the clerk to wipe down the handle of her shopping cart to assess the store’s crowdedness, wondering how close they are the newly revised maximum capacity. Dutifully committed to doing her part to control the spread of contagions, she stoically slips on the cloth cover her sister made as her way of dealing with quarantine manic.

In truth Tara didn’t have to escape lockdown to go grocery shopping before coming here, she still has half a dozen eggs, enough vegetables for several meals, and that bottle of vodka she’s learning how to drink is still two-thirds full. It has however been days since she talked to anyone face-to-face and at this point, even a casual conversation with a random stranger would be welcome. If you had asked her two months ago if she was outgoing, she’d have sheepishly answered no. Of course there were her clients at the gallery she was expected to wine an dine, but that was business. In her personal life she never much missed having close friends or companions. She constantly told herself she’d get around to it but somehow never did. That’s all changed now, now it seems life has no meaning without some kind of connection.

Tara knows she shouldn’t be out and has felt guilty from the moment she sat down at her vanity for the first time in weeks and started prepping. There was a brief interlude just before starting the car when she almost went back inside but was able to convince herself that the need for carrots to complete a soup she’s sort of planning along with getting a half-gallon of orange juice for her next attempt to remedy vodka palatable, make the risks acceptable. The home improvement stop however clearly falls into the category of “in for a penny, in for a pound.” She could of course go without a garden this year like most her neighbors, but spring gardens speak optimistically about the potential of summer and she needs optimism right now. Her doctor was adamant about staying home though, “unless absolutely necessary,” he admonished when she attempted to add provisos. But that was back in March and now here it is the first of May and she simply can’t stay locked up forever. On many levels, the cure’s been every bit as bad as the cause that never seems to come and she’s quickly concluding that like everyone, she ultimately needs to make a personal choice about how to live her one precious life.

The store clerk diligently wiping down her cart can’t be more than sixteen. “How can he still be working?” she wonders. “How can his parents permit it? How can he be so brazen as to stand here at the only entrance greeting her, greeting each customer, without wearing a face mask?” Tara’s both envious and angry at the boy who seems so friendly, and she does so crave a friendly smile. It’s amazing how important even something so slight from a total stranger can be. A stranger who’s courage you admire and who’s recklessness you despise.

Taking the cart from the carefree clerk, Tara feels the cold wet disinfectant send cautionary chills chastising her that it’s not too late to turn around. “What was that term the doctor used,” her rational brain taunts, “underlying condition? Didn’t he say that people in your health need to stay home.” And she did. Week after long agonizing week cleaning and already of clean house, rereading books she wasn’t interested in, watching reruns of Jeopardy not remembering individual questions, but knowing how each match nonetheless unfolds. Weeks of lonely isolation and solitude, with little meaningful to do other than contemplate her changing world in the post traumatic era of COVID.

“Of course doctors are right,” she counters. “Except when they’re not, which seems to be a lot lately.” What medical professionals fail to comprehend, but what’s become crystallizingly clear to Tara, is that being healthy involves much more than a stomach that sorts, a heart that pumps, and lungs that process. Doctors only know what they’re told and right now all they’re being told is a bunch of gobbledygook. Tara pushes her sterilized cart into the subdued chaos of mostly abandoned aisles that seem so peacefully fraught with danger. She tries to forget feelings of guilt, but it’s a struggle. “A pill for this,” she continues to argue her case, “a monitor for that, is it really how life is to be lived? How do you encapsulate the power of a smile, the desire to belong, the need to be in control?”

As she starts down the aisle of cleaning products that leads to the garden section, Tara smiles at the fully stocked toilet paper section realizing the rush to hoard is either over or her timing’s flawless. She quickly pushes her cart toward the paper towel section hoping its the later. To her happy amazement, the display is full and the sign limiting the number of rolls is nowhere to be seen. Suddenly filled with a profound sense of vindication, she takes three rolls even though just needs one, not only as a preventive measure in case hoarders return, but as further evidence of her justified decision to abandon quarantine. In her exuberance she grabs a fourth roll but immediately hesitates; is she being greedy? Isn’t three vindication enough? Stuck in that twilight between following her impulse and being responsible she’s abruptly interrupted.

“Ya know,” a man behind her who seems to have materialized out of nowhere suddenly says with a smooth South American accent, “if you need them it’s not hording.”

Startled, Tara turns to face her accuser but instead of a stern inquisitor, she’s greeted with the warm friendly smile of a stately looking man in worn jeans and a faded red polo shirt. To her astonishment, like the store clerk at the entrance, this audaciously brazen stranger refusing to don his socially mandated face mask, which renders him both reckless and dangerous. In cascading contradiction though, his thick wavy hair, groomed stubble beard, and soft dark eyes that smile as easily as his lips speak to the fact he rolls through life with little regard for social mandates. In her conflicted embarrassment Tara’s unsure what to do, should she return the roll she’s still clutching, along with the others she clearly doesn’t need? Suddenly filled with guilt beyond her health, does she not have a higher obligation to others? In repeated iterations of keeping, then returning the roll in her embrace, only to once again keep it, Tara forces a feeble smile. “With all my free time,” she meekly offers, “I do find myself in need of extra towels. Spring cleaning and all.”

“But of course,” the nonjudgmental man concludes. “And the good thing is, with so much in stock I’m not in danger of being cut short. Of course for the poor folks who follow, who can say, but I guess that’s the deal everywhere for everything right?”

The strange man steps toward Tara collapsing their requisite six foot virtual barrier. If she had the luxury of putting things in perspective, she’d see it’s just his friendly nature, but “stranger danger,” piggybacked on “underlying condition,” is all her inner voice can scream as she quickly scurries around the opposite side of her cart reestablishing a safety perimeter. Panic escalates as she struggles to reconcile a lifelong belief in the positive benefits of casual conservations against her current condition where talking to anyone is fraught with fear. She tries her best to smile politely, telling herself over and over again that she planned for this event. In all her manic it never occurs to her that the facemask conceals nonverbal overtures.

Suddenly mindful of the real reason she came to the home improvement store, Tara quietly tells the nice man, “I have to go,” but does so in a way he can’t discern. She hurries her cart to the far end of the aisle before pausing to check the time. Trying her best to block out the frightening experience, she focuses on her eagerly anticipated tradition of meeting Paul at the coffee kiosk in the front corner of the store. For weeks, every Thursday at nine thirty-seven, she waited for Paul to come for his coffee pretending their chance encounter was just coincidence. Before long, they became more than casual acquaintances, perhaps it’s presumptive to say friends but certainly more than acquaintances. Their weekly moment in the coffee line was filled with playful banter and gentle inquiry. For example, she learned Paul drinks decaf straight but not a lot, he always orders a small cup. Paul likes to tease Tara about not having a favorite, “what’s it gonna be this week?” he always asks, “you’re running out of fancy sounding drinks to try.”

“I’m a girl of many moods,” Tara fondly flirts back. In truth she doesn’t particularly like coffee but is convinced if she tries them all, eventually one will be repeat-worthy. In early March she made the decidedly bold decision that warming weather provided an opportunity to invite Paul to sit with her outside as they share their coffee, but then COVID happened and this is her first time back.

It’s been weeks since Tara last went to work and the Jeopardy host doesn’t really mind if you watch in a stained tee-shirt and sweatpants. Dressing up used to be an essential part of her daily routine. It’s important when you work in sales to always look your best and so today, she decided to again be that confident woman who more than once was the salesperson of the month. She doesn’t even care if she’s completely overdressed for a home improvement store, going all out was more than necessary, it’s mood altering – with a smidgen of hopeful optimism mixed in. If nothing else, Tara is at least truthful about the real reason she escaped quarantine, it has nothing to do with carrots, orange juice for vodka, or gardening supplies; everything to this point, all the risks and dangers, have been building toward arriving in the coffee kiosk line by nine thirty-seven.

Marcos’ Trip to The Home Improvement Store

Marcos steps into the queue to enter the home improvement store two minutes after his brother-in-law Jorge and five minutes before his sister Theresa. By his rough estimate there’s less than twelve people patiently waiting for a sterilized cart to be readied, yet the line wraps around the front of the store almost all the way to garden section. Marcos appreciates having a chance to relax, though still early, like most mornings since COVID got going it’s already been a full day. The strategy he and his two cohorts worked out is the same one they’ve been deploying for several weeks; paper towels first, napkins second, and anything that can be used to wrap or bag food third.

Like a jewel thief with many capers to his credits, Marcos knows precisely which items, in which row, in which order need to be execrated. But that doesn’t mean he can’t have fun along the way, doing his best Mario Andretti impersonation he weaves his cart in and around slower moving traffic careful to maintain the requisite separation. Marcos carefully avoids overt sounds while managing to provide a dramatic backdrop of revving engines and squealing tires. If nothing else, for the briefest of moments it allows him to set aside worry and stress and live a little in a world filled with frivolity. Blissfully rounding the edge of the aisle containing paper towels, he suddenly slides to a haphazard halt on the highly polished concrete floor just outside the virtual six foot perimeter of an amazingly well dressed and nicely put together woman who appears to be agonizing over how many rolls of paper towels she can get away with.

He nonchalantly leans on his cart taking in the gestalt of the moment. “Ya know,” he causally offers extending the same rational he’ll soon deploy, “if you need them it’s not hoarding.”

Startled, the woman spins around still clutching the fourth and final roll she needs to secure to circumvent future hoarders. With the evidence of her transgression on full display, it’s unclear if she’s required to put it back. At least she rationalizes, the floral face cover her sister made conceals her identity so no one will be able to pick her out of a potential line up. Marcos sadly recognizes that her facemask is a loss not just to him, but to all the male shoppers who’ve been in lockdown way too long. As a practical matter, she also reminds Marcos how he forgot his facemask in the truck, again, even though Theresa made a deliberate point of reminding him.

So much goes missing when a woman covers her face, Marco laments. But at the same time, interest and intrigue are intensified. For example, he sees from her eyes that the woman is smiling past her shame and embarrassment even while placidly placing the precious fourth roll in her cart. He marvels at the magnitude of what’s revealed through concealment and decides he rather enjoys the tête-à-tête.

“With all my free time,” the woman meagerly offer with gracious gestures, “I do find myself in need of extra towels with spring cleaning and all.”

“But of course,” Marcos offers in warm solidarity. “And the good thing is, with so much on display I’m not left short.” Happy to have someone to talk to, he forgets about new social distancing protocols and instinctively steps inside the woman’s virtual barrier. “Of course for the poor folks who follow, who can say, but I guess that’s the deal everywhere for everything right?”

The stranger’s overt intrusion into her buffer zone causes the woman to jump back in fearful apprehension. She hurriedly scurries to the opposite end of her cart reestablishing a safety cushion. Looking down until some sense of calm returns, she eventually glances up at Marcos smiling as gently as she can to let him know she doesn’t hold his invasion into her space personal. Again though, she fails to realize that all Marcos can glean from her darting eyes is a sense of worried panic devoid of context. Marcos continues his unabated smile as the woman mumbles something indiscernible while quickly retreating to the far end of the aisle, where she pauses to glance back before checking her phone. She’s torn between having something to say to this foreign sounding stranger who brazenly chooses not to wear a mask when acquiesced protocol demands it, and the calculus involved in determining if the risk is worth the satisfaction. Mindful her scheduled rendezvous is mere moments away, she decides to let it go, which only causes her to again question the wisdom of coming to the home improvement center in light of everything the doctor told her.

Marcos smiles as the wonderfully overdressed woman who wasn’t in the mood to talk, flees with her fourth roll of paper towels. Since COVID started, he’s found most people unwilling to engage in the courtesy of simple conversation. Undaunted, he refuses to modify the joy he derives from talking to random people he’ll never see again and doesn’t get offended when others do. His commitment to connecting is probably behind why he willfully forgets to wear his facemask, even though Theresa’s relentless in her admonishment.

With that encounter completed, Marcos diligently resumes his assigned duties cognizant of the timing issues he has to manage between Jorge and Theresa. The plan is the same as its been since COVID started, get what they need, then stagger their return to the truck so as to avoid the appearance of coordinated hoarding. Besides, as he’s recently shared, it’s really not hoarding because they need it. With the three of them out of work they’ve turned to selling food on street corners as a way to keep their heads above financial ruin. They’ve figured out that the stuff they need at this store gets delivered Wednesday nights so by Thursday morning the shelves are restocked. With similar cunning, on Tuesdays they stock up on tortillas and eggs at one store, and on Wednesdays, pilfer another store for flour, bacon, pork, and sausage. Meanwhile, butter, salt, cheese, and fresh fruit seem to be a catch-as-catch-can undertaking, which makes every morning after selling’s done, a scavenger hunt for something.

As Marcos finishes checking out, he notices that Jorge chose poorly since he’s still in his checkout line. Marcos doesn’t mind finishing first, it provides an opportunity to stop by the coffee kiosk for a quick shot of espresso. If you ask him what he misses most from his former job, having an espresso machine at his disposal might not rank first, but it would certainly be in the top ten. He’s happy Jorge has the keys to the truck, that means he doesn’t have to feel guilty about partaking in one of his favorite indulgences. With practiced patience he rolls his cart into what appears to be the coffee line, pleased to discover the well dressed woman from his earlier chance encounter in front of him.

“Pardon me,” Marcos says to the woman who’s back is six feet away. “It’s so hard to tell anymore who’s in line, are you waiting to order?”

The startled woman instantly recognizes the stranger from before. Not only is his accent unmistakable his voice projects an air of contentment and maybe even happiness that seems so out of place in the world she’s come to accept. She turns around forcing a smile still not certain if she should scold him for not wearing a mask or just enjoy having someone to talk too. Is she obligated to say something? Would it make any difference? Does everything have to be about COVID? “No,” she answers herself while answering him. She decides it’s not her responsibility to be a COVID cop, she can leave that to all the other eager hall monitors. “I mean yes I am in line. I wasn’t going to get coffee but then thought why not.”

“Is every decision for you fraught with so much conflict?” Marcos teases with unwavering warmth. “First you agonize over paper towels and now you’re just as unsettled about coffee.”

“I don’t usually drink coffee,” the woman defends suddenly feeling like its the paper towel incident all over again. “I thought perhaps I’d see a friend, but no. Then everything smelled so good.” Her eyebrows rise in excitement as her eyes pierce the cavalier stranger who seems far too relaxed for this place and time. “Besides,” she tries to deflect, “it’s not like I’ve got anywhere else to be.”

“Me either,” Marcos offers a simpatico. “Well I suppose that’s not really true, I am on a bit of a time line.” He looks back at the checkout counter to confirm Jorge’s still held up. “But is life even worth living if we don’t have time to enjoy espresso?”

“You’re still working?” the woman asks.

“No,” Marcos answers. “Well actually yes I am working, but not really.”

“Sounds like you have a government job,” the woman teases.

“That would be nice,” Marcos laughs, “they at least get paid to sit home doing nothing. I’m a chef, well I used to be. I got furloughed from the Four Seasons. Probably I got fired. Perhaps its a difference without distinction, who can say? Either way, I’m formerly a chef from the Four Seasons. Now I sell breakfast burritos and empanadas on street corners. It’s not fine dining, but at least I get to cook for people, and besides, in times like these, people need comfort food more than fancy cuisine.”

The woman points at Marcos’ full cart, “so all of this -“

“Is for making and packaging my food,” Marcos finishes.

“I see,” the woman teases. “And is your new found business successful?”

“Crazy successful,” Marco groans. “Making more money as street hustler than I ever did as a chef, and its all in cash if you know what I mean.” He finishes with a whimsical grin and knowing wink. “I do miss working in a real kitchen with other chefs though. I’ll probably go back, someday. It’ll be hard to give up the adventure and excitement of street vendor’s life though. But then again, I’m not sure fine dining will be much different once COVID’s done having its way with us.”

After an awkwardly prolonged silence, the woman turns back around to wait her turn in line. Marcos notices that Jorge has finally finished checking out and that Theresa just got in a long check out line. That’s his window to get a coffee and perhaps get to know this well dressed woman who’s illusive beauty is captivatingly hidden beneath her COVID veil. “Ya know,” he restarts, “they put out paper towels every Thursday morning.” The woman turns around blushing and as expected, find a charming man beaming with warmth. “My name’s Marcos,” he quickly offers. “Marcos the street vendor, specializing in breakfast burritos.”

“And empanadas don’t forget.” She smiles both at her new friend, and at the irony of flirting in the coffee kiosk line even though Paul’s a no show. “My names Tara.” She instinctively steps toward Marcos extending her hand before remembering such pleasantries are no longer part of the social order. “Do you come every Thursday morning?” She asks while retreating back within her virtual bubble.

“Have to, it’s amazing how much we consume each week.”

“Well then,” Tara teases, “perhaps I’ll see you next week, depending of course on how spring cleaning goes.” Assured of her safety within the virtual bubble, she starts to undo her mask. After all, there’s a reason she took the time this morning to put on makeup.

“Stop please,” Marcos interrupts. “For your safety of course.” He gazes warmly into her eyes while smiling mischievously. “But also, I want to remember you by your eyes which are so alive, the rest I’ll fill in with imagination.” He looks down at himself. “You of course are stuck remembering me with nothing left to the imagination. Regrettably I fear I’m in a far worse position. I ask only that you don’t remember me for what I am, but for what I was; someone who once had a successful career, someone who before the era of COIVD, would have invited you to sit outside to share our coffee. But alas, I must now run to stay on my time line.” Marcos starts to leave. “I bid you adieu until we meet again next week in aisle twenty three.”

With that, Marcos pushes his cart out of the home improvement store into the constant challenges of his COVID caused world.

Read Part Three: COVID Casual


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