You are home, in the middle of the day, because of the coronavirus pandemic. So are the neighbors, their teenage kids, and the workers remodeling their house. Saws buzz, nail guns fire, drills spin, and one of the teenage boys repeatedly clanks his goddamn skateboard from noon till dinner time, seven days a week. When talking to your friends on the phone, you try not to complain. After all, you are one of the lucky ones, with a job that can be done at home. But you are edgy, unable to sleep, and often lack energy, as if you are nearing the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. The virus hasn’t attacked you, at least not yet. But you doubt you will walk away unscathed.
Divorced, and mother of two children with families of their own, you used to cherish your quiet life, one more rural than suburban. Once you downsized from raising your kids, you chose to be closer to the mountains than restaurants, theaters, and museums. It wasn’t a choice you would have made when you were younger.
Normally, you work in an office, go to the local pub every Friday night, attend a monthly book club meeting, and spend the occasional Saturday afternoon with the grandchildren. Now, because of the pandemic, you are sequestered in your home, using various interactive technologies to connect with people. The only time you leave the house is to go to the grocery store, shopping first thing in the morning, when few people are around. Oblivious to the pop of serotonin generated by in-person interactions, you are buoyed by the simple, three-sentence conversation with the cashier.
It’s time to go to work. You negotiate with yourself. You will not touch your phone for sixty minutes and you put it under the pillow in the bedroom. Then you tell yourself not to search the internet for the new storm door you’ve been meaning to buy. That can wait until after dinner. You sit at your desk and the carpenter’s saw buzzes. You sigh and look at your to do list. Just as the nail gun shoots off a round of heavy metal, you log on to the company network. Somehow, you shut it all out and work for fifty-five minutes. Needing to stretch your legs, you head to the refrigerator and grab a can of Diet Coke. Like clockwork, you move on to the kitchen cabinet and stuff a thick, gooey oatmeal raisin cookie in your mouth. You pat your belly and feel your girth growing. Before you sit back down, you walk a lap around the house, drop down and do ten pushups, ten sit-ups, and ten jump squats. You worry about your elevated heartrate, then refocus on your work.
Another sixty minutes pass. It’s time for a department zoom meeting. You haven’t been in a room with your coworkers for almost a year. The meeting starts and you examine the new backdrop of your boss’s streaming video. It’s a jungle scene, complete with monkeys hanging from trees. Some smile, showing their teeth and gums. You remember the last time you smiled that wide and had a belly laugh. It was three weeks ago, when you played poker on a phone app with your friends living two thousand miles away. Who said good things didn’t come out of a pandemic?
On your computer monitor, a consultant talks through a presentation. Your mind wanders and you contemplate why anyone would ever go back to an office building. At the beginning of the pandemic, you would do anything to avoid returning to the in-person, command and control style of management. But as the months go by, you realize the value of being with your coworkers, the value of the smiles, the frowns, the jovial slap on the shoulder, even the value of the little side glances and power plays. You just wish your coworkers would stop putting in an extra two hours a day to prove they are working hard from home. Though a long-time top performer, you feel the pressure to keep up with electronic appearances. You turn your attention back to the voice coming out of the computer.
“In short, we think we can install this new technology in the next six months,” the consultant concludes.
You wonder if anyone noticed you yawn and chug the sweaty can of Diet Coke. While the carbonated bubbles tickle the roof of your mouth, you make a note to add two months to the project plan. New software installations always take longer than anyone expects. The carpenter’s saw buzzes, and the kid with the skateboard starts his afternoon routine. You glance at the clock. It is noon, on the dot, and your coworkers log out of the meeting en masse. Unaware that serotonin is not triggered by online interactions, you feel lonelier than ever. Skateboard wheels hit the pavement, once, twice, then a third time. The kid continues to slam his board on the ground, and you want to poke your eyes out. Instead, you go make a tuna fish sandwich.
After lunch, it’s time for another zoom meeting. You hear your coworker’s kids fight while he talks through the risks of underestimating the effect of climate change. A Corgi paws at a second coworker’s cheeks. Skateboard wheels hit the pavement and the carpenter fires off another round from his gun.
“Does your research support this position?” your boss asks you.
“Uh,” you say as if a nail just penetrated your heart. “I’m sorry. What was the question?”
“Does your research show that CO2 emission disclosures indicate companies in our industry are making progress toward reducing gas emissions?”
“Oh,” you say, clearing your throat. “The research suggests there is the typical bell curve. A couple of companies are doing great, most are chipping away at the task. And like usual, a handful of our competitors could care less.”
After a few chuckles, you continue. “Currently, our progress on reducing carbon emissions puts us in the top quartile.”
Your coworkers nod and smile. No one bothers to ask what it means to be in the top quartile in an environment where natural disasters are occurring at unprecedented rates. You think about how millions of acres in the nearby national forest burned this past summer, and thick, poisonous smoke drifted into the valley where you live. For eight long, dark days, you couldn’t see the street at the end of your driveway or breathe the air without damaging your lungs. Then, your father’s house was under twelve feet of water for a month after three consecutive hurricanes landed on his doorstep. You try to reconcile the current state of the environment with the fact that the earth is billions of years old and has survived many rounds of catastrophic events. Such thoughts are beyond your brain’s capacity and the inside of your head feels like an overheated radiator about to explode. You remember you will see your grandchildren on the computer screen this evening.
Your boss thanks you for your input and the group talks for another thirty minutes. A garbage truck rumbles by, dogs bark, and the kid resumes jumping on his skateboard. You close your eyes, desperate for a quiet moment. Of all things, you think of your grandmother. An image of her short, stout body, dressed in brown pants and a tan sweater, comes to mind. Her hair, an impressive bonnet, was colored two shades lighter than the sweater. You only knew her as a widow, but one who was strong and independent. Early on, when she visited, her presence was accompanied by sharp odors of Herring, sauerkraut, and putrid smelling cheeses. With deep Polish roots, she wasn’t the type of woman who embraced her grandchildren. But you loved her anyway.
Dementia took her long before her last breath. The memory from the final time you saw her is still vivid. Curled up in a bed in an assisted living facility, she had shrunk to the size of a child. Seeing her lay motionless, you broke into tears and ran out of the room. In the corridor, alone with your grief, you knew you’d never see her again.
Sitting at your desk, tears drip on your keyboard. You think if she could be strong, you can too.
You only got to know your grandmother when you started to spend summers at her house in Western Massachusetts. You remember when, as a young teenager, she’d take you to the bank to withdraw ten dollars. The fresh, crisp bills meant dinner at the cheap steak house, the place that had the cafeteria serving line. The routine there was simple: pick up a tray, plate, and utensils, then in succession a salad, potato, a slab of meat, bread, dessert, and a fountain drink. At the end of the meal, your grandmother always asked what you wanted to do while visiting.
You remember how you never hesitated. “I want to go blueberry picking.”
Back in your home office you mutter, “Come on. Focus!”
You try to wrangle your attention back to your computer. After all, you work for a global enterprise and it is your job to drive change in work processes in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But you lose the mental battle and continue to daydream. Elbows on desk, head in hands, you think back to those blueberry picking days. They started when your grandmother came up from the basement with an armful of white plastic buckets, some pint-sized, some quart-sized, and some gallon-sized. You eagerly took them from her, headed out the back door, and turned on the faucet. The water coming out of the spigot was always ice cold. With numb fingers, you washed away a winter’s worth of cobwebs and dust. As much as you scrubbed, the buckets never looked clean. You dried them with a ratty dish towel, then stacked them one inside the other, like the Russian Dolls that rested on your grandmother’s mantel.
With bug spray, sunscreen, and a big floppy hat in her hand, you knew your grandmother was ready to go. She backed her Dodge Dart out of the driveway and aimed it toward the peak of the hill she lived on. When the car headed down the other side, your stomach flipflopped its way down the eighteen percent grade. Once you got to the main road, it was smooth sailing, just past the lake, over the causeway, and up a dirt road to an empty, pot-holed parking lot. Every year, the routine was the same. You hopped out of the car, grabbed two quart-sized buckets from the back seat, and waited. Your grandma took two of the gallon-sized buckets for herself and, without so much as a word, walked down a single-track trail and up a hill covered in blueberry bushes. When the path faded away, she bushwhacked for another half mile. This is one of your favorite memories, when, on the horizon, the baby blue sky met the green rolling hills spread out in front of you. Eventually Grandma would pick a place to put one of her buckets down. It was the signal for you to branch off and go your own way.
You made a habit of wandering as far away from your grandmother as you could and still see her floppy hat. The brambles snagged your shorts and scratched your lower legs. Birds chirped, then fluttered away. Once you found what you thought was a good spot, you squatted, then cupped a vine of berries in your hand. You barely touched the tiny fruit with your fat fingers when the bluest of them separated from the stem. You left the green, yellow, and purple berries to ripen on the vine. A good get is five to ten berries per bunch, and there were hundreds of bunches within a ten-yard radius of your ankles and knees. It was easy to fill your bucket, eating plenty as you went.
The moment is shattered when a truck carrying lumber rushes by. The neighbor’s kid’s skateboard hit the pavement once, twice, then a third time. You swear at him under your breath, then take it back. The kid is not causing any problems, not breaking into people’s houses, selling drugs, or drinking in the middle of the day. You chew the inside of your lip until it hurts, then make a mental note that your loss of concentration has taken up fifteen minutes of work time. You don’t care, then cuss the virus for exposing your lack of discipline.
Like the kid, you pine to be outside, to be free.
Instead, you write a memo about the increased business risks associated with global warming. Regulators recently contacted your company and expressed disappointment in the quality of the company’s climate-related disclosures. Your boss favored an under-reporting strategy, and his preference has been a long-standing point of contention between the two of you. When you spoke with him two days ago, the discussion was a familiar one.
“None of our competitors ever disclose anything regarding regulatory or legislative risks,” he insisted.
“I don’t want to be put in a position where we are misleading investors by ignoring our fiduciary responsibility.”
Your boss countered, “It’s not like I’m asking you to commit a fraud. Can’t we just be a bit murky about the calculations we use to determine how much we’ve reduced our greenhouse gas emissions?”
In your heart, you understand his position. He believes that too much disclosure will cause stakeholders to pressure the company to do more. It’s a tricky balance, the allocation of cash flows between environmental initiatives, and the research and development needed to maintain the company’s long-term viability.
You countered. “We need to properly disclose how we quantify our annual carbon dioxide emissions. I’ll put something together for you to review.”
“I don’t like this.”
A drill spins its way through wood and another truck rumbles by. You count to three, block it all out, and write the first paragraph of your memorandum. Distracted by a feeling of futility, your momentum falters. The thoughts inside your head spiral down a deep, dark chasm. Part of the problem is no one knows what the real environmental risks are until disaster strikes. While forest fires are expected, no one could have predicted tens of millions of acres burning because of a one in a hundred-year wind event. And no one could have predicted multiple hurricanes hitting the same state in the span of seven weeks, or yet another oil rig spewing hundreds of millions of gallons of oil into a pristine ocean because of human error.
Two days later, you send a draft of the memo outlining the new disclosures to your boss. It comes back, re-written by the corporate attorney. Your face turns fire engine red and you wonder why you bother. The neighbor’s kid pounds his skateboard on the road in front of your house, and you want to strangle him. You start to lose your shit, imagining millions of little coronaviruses marching up the driveway, coming after you like a mass of black widows crawling out of the desert.
You quickly pull yourself together, flip on the radio, and head to the kitchen to make a turkey sandwich. After eating lunch, you chow down a cupcake, then call the attorney to give him your suggested changes. The back and forth is normal, and cordial, and in the end you both make several compromises.
After the call, you regroup by scanning the online version of The New York Times. The news is grim, the virus has surged, retreated, mutated, then surged again. The press reiterates the arguments from both sides. One contingent believes the pandemic is real, masks matter, social distancing makes a difference, and people are unnecessarily dying. A second group believes the whole thing is nothing but a hoax, civil liberties are being compromised, and the virus is no more harmful than any other flu or virus from the last hundred years. You wonder if anyone has a memory of the carnage left behind by the polio virus, the leg braces, the iron lungs. The bipolar nature of people’s behavior makes you want to crawl under the covers of your bed and never come out. No. No, you think. You will be back at the pub, drinking a beer, and chatting with the locals soon enough.
Normally of strong mind, you want to get on an airplane, to go on vacation, to go visit friends, to move amongst strangers. You will not give in to your weakness, for fear of getting the virus, for fear of getting the bug and passing it on to an innocent person. You take your responsibility seriously, but you are suffering and wonder if you are the idiot.
Then it happens. You get a voice mail message from your brother, the one who hasn’t called in two years.
“Hey, uh,” the message starts. “It’s me. It’s about Uncle David. Call me.”
Your throat tightens. You take a couple of long, deep breaths and back your chair away from your desk. You haven’t seen your uncle since your grandmother died, though your brother reconnected with him several years ago. The last you knew was that he was doing okay, living in a senior housing complex just down the street from where he grew up. You remember how when you visited your grandmother, you slept in his room, in his twin bed. By then, he had moved out of the house and the room contained no evidence it was ever his.
When you were a teenager, he lived at the bottom of the hill, with his girlfriend, in a dumpy apartment. He had a slight slur and never quite looked anyone in the eye. Over time, you came to understand why he was the weird one. First, there was the car accident, the one that tore the skin off his face and killed his high school girlfriend. Barely eighteen when the accident happened, he enlisted in the Marines as soon as his injuries healed. Then, at boot camp, he was promptly sprayed with agent orange. The uncle you knew suffered long days in a hospital bed, first with testicular cancer, then with a tumor inside his chest. He never gave up. But he never flourished either. After the cancers, the uncle you knew spent his days hunting for errant golf balls on the public golf course. He did a lot of fishing and often gutted his catch on the back steps of your grandmother’s house. In his own way, your uncle is the one who taught you how to find joy in the most trying of times.
You look at your computer. The screen contains the next memo you need to write for your boss, a recommendation for how to improve on the company’s strategy for environmental and social responsibility. You minimize the window, so you don’t have to be reminded you are in the middle of the workday and dial your brother’s number.
“Hey,” you say, bracing yourself for the worst. “What’s up.”
“Uncle David died two days ago.”
Though not surprising, the words still feel like a punch in the gut.
“He got the virus.”
Neither of you spoke for what seemed like the longest fifteen seconds of your life.
“What do you know?”
“Not much. Had a cough and got tested three weeks ago. Was admitted to the hospital and died a couple days ago.”
“Was he alone?”
“Probably. No one else is around.”
Another eternal pause.
“Thanks for calling me.”
“Yeah, uh, there won’t be a funeral or anything.”
“So, that’s it?”
“Well, like I said, thanks for calling.”
As soon as you hang up the phone you click on a web browser and search the Covid-19 news for Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Like most local papers, the number of cases and deaths from the virus are reported daily. Your phone buzzes and you see it’s your boss. You let the call go to voice mail and look at the county health report from the previous day.
Pittsfield reports 4 new COVID-19 deaths,340 new cases On November 26th,
health authorities report the county’s 57th COVID-19 death was a 76-year.
old man who tested positive on November 4th and died on November 25th at
the regional medical center. He had underlying conditions.
The facts match.
Your inner core feels hollow. You wonder if anyone held his hand.
All the thoughts in your head recede until your eyes perceive only the white space in front of you. After a minute or two, you become aware of the wind chimes, the ones hanging outside on the corner of the house. The breeze is gentle, and the sound is soothing.
You call your oldest daughter, tell her the news, then arrange a day and time for you to see the grandchildren. The following Saturday afternoon, a black SUV pulls into the driveway. You come out of the house wearing a mask and gloves and approach the vehicle. When you get within six feet of the car, you stop. All the windows are down and the four grandchildren, ages five through ten, start waving their arms and blowing kisses.
“Hi, Grandma, we miss you.”
“I miss you too,” you say, your voice muffled.
“Look at my new ribbons,” one of the girls yells out.
“Oh, you look pretty with those.”
The youngest starts blowing bubbles out of the back window. The visit doesn’t last long, and you curse the power of the invisible bug.
“Thanks for coming by,” you say to your daughter. “I miss all of you so much.”
“We miss you too. Love you, Mom.”
You watch the SUV back out of the driveway, then proceed down the street and out of sight. You think of your grandmother, how you always kept her big floppy hat in sight. You draw strength from the memory and know you’re going to need it. After all, the pandemic isn’t going to end anytime soon.
On Monday morning, your boss forwards you an email from the corporate attorney. The company has received another inquiry from the regulators. They want to know why there was no disclosure about the risks associated with a pandemic in the company’s regulatory filings.
For the third time in five days, you lose your shit. “Are you kidding me?” you verbalize to no one. Down the street a drill starts spinning and a saw whines. The inside of your head feels like scrambled eggs.
“What are the risks?” you repeat. “You have got to be kidding. How about the fact that the company has thousands of employees working in densely populated cities? How about the fact that the company hires human beings?”
Your brain is on fire. “How about the fact that the supply chain is composed of human beings who work in densely populated areas? How about the fact that the whole damn economy can sink into an extended recession?”
You think the request from the regulators is ridiculous. Can a pandemic affect the company’s cash flows and financial condition? You bet it can! But is that really news to investors?
The nail gun goes off, firing nail after nail after nail after nail.
“Stop it!” you yell, then wonder what is happening to you.
You think about the thousands of virus bugs that could be marching up the steps to your house, into the living room and down the hallway. You get up from your chair, go into the bedroom, and open the closet door. There, hanging on a hook, is your grandmother’s old sun hat. You take the hat in your hands and put it up to your nose, taking in its deep, earthy smell. Outside, the sound of the nail gun slowly dies out, and with it, thoughts of the coronavirus temporarily fade away.
Cathy Beaudoin, a native New Englander, currently lives in Bend, Oregon. Her fiction stories have been published in literary journals including Pomona Valley Review, Angel City Review, and Freshwater. One of those stories has been nominated for a pushcart prize. Her nonfiction writing has appeared in Triathlon Magazine Canada, the Reader’s Choice award-winning anthology: Firsts: Coming of Age Stories by People with Disabilities, and literary outlets such as Five on the Fifth. She, and her guide dog Winnie, can often be found hiking the trails in and around Central Oregon.