Breath of Strangers
His hands trembled as he reached for a shopping cart. He had avoided life for the past five weeks. Now, wherever he looked there were threats. He saw it in the way people veered to the left or the right. He saw it in their eyes.
Past sliding doors into an open area designed to protect customers from winter blasts and summer bursts. He walked around stacks of bottled water, boxes of mac and cheese, and sugared cereal, then to a second set of doors. Clerks who had once smiled now resembled bank robbers – their faces covered and eyes swerving. One employee pointed to a sign.
– Stand here.
– Hold out your hands.
A glob of cold gel descended.
– Rub your hands together.
– Have a good day.
There were new rules: Don’t look but stay alert. Eyes down but see what’s in front or sneaking up behind you. No contact. Avoid the other. Don’t touch. Don’t even let them breathe on you.
Follow the signs. Brightly colored cards with bold print. Words. Sentences. Decals.
– Do not move forward until called.
– Only two people beyond this point.
The decals on the floor echoed the signs.
– Stand back.
– Stand here.
More words on signs and decals.
– Don’t …
– You are required to …
– Always …
– Remember …
– Wait until …
Unspoken rules: Avert. Veer. Dodge. Unmentioned rules he had internalized years earlier. Behaviors so ingrained they seemed autonomic. When a familiar face approaches – Stay alert! Should a friend draw near – Be on guard. If a child runs by – Beware. A sneeze, a touch, a rushed exhalation – A problem. Other folks – all folks really – threats, menaces, oppressors maybe, or just something to fear as if dodging bullets or knife thrusts.
The smell of disinfectant blanketed the produce aisle. Fresh produce on the right, pies and cakes on the left, meat counter farther down across from the bread and just before the frozen seafood, then turn left.
– Is the pharmacy open?
Go straight ahead. All the way to the other end and turn left at the milk. Pharmacy at the very end. He walked as if in a fog – cautious, eyes alert, then, at the final moment, mirror the person oncoming and glance away.
Past the cereal and prunes, he sighted the coffee section. He had stocked up on everything except caffeine.
A family of four rounded the corner bunched together. They didn’t stray from one another as in the past, when a husband without the grocery list would mutter items as he wandered to the next aisle while his wife looked at the coffee and their children lagged behind, or ran away to be found later in the candy aisle pleading for some brightly wrapped item.
Walk around the mother, avoid the children, turn head, nod at the father, pretend to look at the coffee pods so his back would be turned when the father passed.
Remain wary of simple touches from those who may have brushed another. He felt intimidated by slight coughs, bullied by breath from strangers. There were asymptomatic carriers everywhere. Cut right, then left as people approached. Zig, then zag. Go straight. Be elusive. Be alert. Recognize pattern. See the gap. Find the hole. Breakaway. Move forward. Stay alert. Repeat.
He approached the pharmacy, refills in hand, ready to repeat words said innumerable times when he needed prescription refilled.
What he saw, he had worked to forget. The pharmacy tech in a blue uniform, name tag prominent, cloth over mouth and nose, voice muffled. His reflection in an acrylic u-shaped barrier – a thirty-inch-high splash guard with a six-inch ledge separating person from person from the threat each carried.
He read the same words as years earlier, when, after months, he was taken from a small room – a tomb really, led through narrow hallway into smaller rooms with concrete walls, and a window with a ledge. He was directed to wait on the opposite side of the window where a man in a blue uniform, insignia and badge prominent, raised his hand and pointed to a sign.
– Do not move forward until called.
His hands trembled.
The Waiting Room
The husband sat in the waiting room. Each time the swinging doors opened his head shot up.
– Maybe this time.
– Is it the doctor?
– What would she say?
– What’s her face look like?
The clock above the door shifted from eight to nine.
Earlier he had watched his wife’s gurney rushed down the hall, a surgical nurse held onto the bags, tubes, and oxygen machine.
Then he fell against the wall.
– Are you alright?
– That was my wife.
– Let me help you. Sit here. Have you eaten?
– Yes, but…
The husband pointed down the hall.
– My wife.
– Here, eat this.
The nurse handed him a packet of Ritz crackers and a small container of apple sauce.
– Thank you.
– There’s another waiting room down the hall. Less crowded. I’ll tell the clerk you’re in there.
Multiple windows. The sun too bright. CNN on television. A few chairs and tables with the usual suspects – old magazines with address labels removed. Maybe two other people in the room. He chose a chair facing the door, grabbed a magazine. He looked at the cover.
– Not now.
Glanced at the magazine again.
– Who cares?
The clock shifted from nine to ten.
His eyes shot from door to window. He listened to the sputter of CNN. He refocused on the window in the door. He knew from experience to look at that window. He also knew to forget the pictures on the walls, the plastic chairs, the end tables. Forget the smell of hand sanitizer, of rubbing alcohol strong enough to induce a headache. Forget the nausea. Just focus on the surgeon’s face when she appears in the window of the swinging doors. Study her face. Smiling or grim? Her eyes. Bright or dull? Her walk. Slow or robust?
The clock shifted from ten to eleven.
To eleven ten.
There! Her head! Check her eyes. Mouth. Posture.
The surgeon walked toward the husband, moved the end table, scooted it closer, and sat.
She wore clean scrubs, but no scrub cap and no surgeon’s lab coat. Her hands were clean. Her face impassive. Her eyes intent.
Then came the details.
When he entered the store his prescription lenses seemed foggy as they adjusted from sunlight to fluorescent. He came prepared – face mask, gloves. There were very few people in the store, and he noticed none in aisle five. He shot straight for the chips, salsa, queso.
It had been weeks and he craved something salty and crispy, something that demanded he eat the entire bag. Just splurge. Go crazy. Forget his blood pressure. Eat something so decadent and sinful he’d have to go to confession. Might as well. Who knew when he’d be back, or if he’d be back, what with unknown carriers and magical cures. Nowadays, to enter a store he had to don more gear than when he played quarterback.
One bag of chips, two bags, put the third one back – too thick, not enough salt. Find the right bag, then check out the queso. His glasses fogged up again. Must be the mask. Step back, search the entire section.
Good lord! At his eye level – hair, eyes. He lowered his. Black slacks framed near perfect hips. Blouse – exposing a décolletage to rival any television star seen in this stay-at-home period. A perfect way to end his weeks-long isolation. He knew what was happening.
She turned. Reached for something directly in front of him. “Sorry.”
She pushed her cart down the aisle, then turned, came back toward him, and stopped a few feet away.
– Her eyes.
Clear, direct. A blue that at first looks almost green, then as she came closer light blue. When she was within three feet, he saw they were teal. He thought he could see a smile beneath her mask.
Her eyes never moved from his. She touched his shopping cart and leaned forward. His glasses grew foggy. He could see the fog spread from the bottom corners toward the middle of his lenses.
– Slow down. Don’t breathe so hard.
She pulled down her mask.
– Oh, God, full lips.
He knew what was happening. Had been seen women stare at him. Years ago, a lady in a short pin dot skit that seemed effervescent as she swished toward him, touched his forearm, and whispered, “My friends and I were talking, and we think you look hot.”
Now in aisle five, she was within a few inches. Her teal eyes never moved. Never blinked. She smiled and leaned closer. Raised her hand close to his face, gracefully touched her fingers together, then grazed his forearm, and said, “If you clean your glasses with soap and water, they won’t fog over.”
Thomas Elson’s short stories, poetry, and flash fiction have been published in numerous venues such as Calliope, Pinyon, Lunaris, New Ulster, Lampeter, Selkie, Pennsylvania Literary Journal, and Adelaide Literary Magazine. He divides his time between Northern California and Western Kansas.