There was a miniature battlefield of ruined buildings and poorly painted models that sat in the basement of a tidy house in the Maryland countryside. With the coughing pestilence scouring the land, the governor had ordered a statewide quarantine. Zeke Barlow, cancer survivor and father of two, was confined to the basement. Most of his neighbors were angry and insisted on having block-party gatherings.
He stood behind an organized regiment of plastic wood elves he’d painted an emerald green. Across the table stood his ten-year-old son, Doug (Duggie), pushing his poorly painted knights into position.
Zeke crouched to get a table-eye view. Duggie’s knights had been decimated in the last war when the boy charged into the open, and Zeke hoped his son had learned a valuable tactical lesson. Seeing the position of the plastic knights dashed his hopes. With his best narrator voice, he said, “Through the acrid stench of war, as the morning mist recedes from the burned-out town of Duggie-ville, the elven archers take aim at the human horsemen.” Zeke liked to embellish for his son’s benefit as much as his own. The boy had fallen in love with Tolkien’s universe the same way Zeke had, and embraced everything fantasy. “I’ll pick them off when it’s my turn, you know.”
“They’ll ride away,” Duggie said, undeterred. He pushed a large plastic trebuchet (painted a drab brown) next to his wizard (painted gray to match Gandalf).
At this point, Zeke could:
A. Wipe out the knights with a volley from the elven archers, teaching his son a lesson in tactics (which he was reluctant to do since the last time resulted in a crying fit. Though he was ten, Duggie had yet to master the emotional sting of disappointment).
B. Charge his own army out into the open and see if his son took the bait, thus learning how easily targets can be defeated when there’s no cover.
C. Ignore tactics and play goofy, something he hadn’t done since Duggie was seven and they filled the ranks of models with Thomas the Tank Engine, the Incredible Hulk, and a plastic tank Duggie found in his Happy Meal.
His son had been insisting he was no longer a child, and if he didn’t want to be treated like one, then option C was out. The last time he played poorly on purpose, Duggie figured it out and screamed that he was cheating (because he couldn’t find the words to accuse his father of not playing for realsies), so B was also out. It would have to be option A.
“Your turn,” Duggie said, and stood back with his arms crossed, overconfident smirk on his face.
“I move my halberdiers through the woods,” Zeke narrated, pushing the models through the forest of plastic trees. “And with my archers, I shoot at your knights.” He picked up the dice and rolled.
“I cast reverse arrow,” Duggie said, slamming a card on the table, knocking over a few models.
Duggie had clearly been brushing up on the rules, and Zeke felt the sting of betrayal. His first reaction to most things that didn’t cooperate was one of anger, and he balled his hands into fists and gritted his teeth. His own father would’ve given him a good smack if he’d outsmarted him in a game, but then again his father wouldn’t be playing with models.
For the most part, Zeke was a good father and a dedicated husband. He loved both of his kids dearly, though he had his doubts that Duggie was his. Emily had stepped outside the marriage more than once, and she’d probably do it again before it was over. He loved her, and he needed her, but he found it hard to trust her. He often thought her infidelity was the source of his anger, the stinging rebuke of someone he loved and trusted who had betrayed him. The coughing sickness and the isolation it brought into Zeke’s life were just the latest in a series of tragedies he had to endure. He’d contracted cancer when he was Duggie’s age and had a bone marrow transplant. The cancer came back in his late twenties, and though Zeke beat it a second time, it took a toll on his marriage and his health. He was now a member of a delicate class, those with preexisting conditions who’d been warned that the virus was death, that outside was poison, and lingering embraces were mortal blows from an unseen executioner. It was only in fleeting moments when his son snuck downstairs that he’d felt normal.
The boiling rage of his anger would consume him. This he knew, felt it in his core. It was always there, bubbling just below the surface, and at times it had overcome him. He would feel like someone being controlled, a character in a video game that someone else was driving. Since moving into the house at Summerview Terrace, he had:
1. Smashed an antique crystal serving dish Emily’s great-grandmother had given her (which was, unbeknown to either of them, smuggled out of Germany during the Second World War and held considerable value) by hurling it through the living room window when Emily confessed her first infidelity.
2. Shattered the cordless phone against the kitchen floor, cracking two tiles and sending splintered plastic pieces everywhere (the shattered screen and battery cover still sat beneath the couch among a forest of dust bunnies, bottle caps, and a cork from a bottle of wine Emily opened and forgot about) when he ended a conversation with his father who had accused him of being a libtard scumbag.
3. Stabbed a screwdriver through a laptop (which happened to be after his father texted him a poorly edited video of a man being beaten – Trump’s head had been superimposed over the beater and CNN’s head over the victim).
4. Shoved Emily’s favorite vibrator into the running garbage disposal when she refused his advances (she had, after all, promised a dalliance a week earlier, and it had been more than eight months since their last intimate encounter—chiefly because she was seeing the real estate agent who sold their townhouse).
Anger could be a gift, if he could control it. Anger drove him to demand a promotion at work, and though he didn’t get it, he had received a generous raise and a year-end bonus.
The doorbell rang and Duggie jumped. The boy was already tense since he feared his tactical maneuver would trigger his father’s legendary rage. “I should go before Mom gets mad I’m down here,” Duggie said, launching himself toward the basement steps and leaping up them two at a time. “Bye, Dad!” he said. “Love you,” this last before slamming the door closed.
The hasty yet endearing words softened Zeke, made him realize at once how misplaced his anger was. Reverse arrow was a clever move he didn’t see coming. He felt weighed down with sadness at not seeing how much Duggie had matured. He’d been banished to the basement for far longer than he wanted, and Duggie’s hasty retreat stung in a way he didn’t fully understand. His family was fully conscious of their fragile father, and though Zeke could sit at the dinner table without Emily complaining, it wasn’t enough. He missed touch, hugs, sitting on the couch watching TV while his children used him as a pillow.
He missed his wife.
The doorbell rang again and he pulled up the front-door video on his tablet as his wife answered. It was Demi and John, their neighbors, offering a pie wrapped in plastic. They weren’t wearing masks. They weren’t taking the stay-at-home order seriously. His wife accepted the pie, perhaps to be polite. Though the front-door camera had a poor microphone, Zeke could make out some of the words.
John said, “Becky’s leaving soon. I’m surprised she sold the house so quickly, especially given the quarantine.”
“Well,” Emily replied, out of camera view, “people still need houses.”
“Have you heard from anyone else?” Demi asked. The couple were gossip hounds who triggered an aversion in Zeke partly because they were still in the sexually competitive phase of their relationship despite being married and having produced a girl (a four-year-old they dressed in Goth attire named Sophie). Demi would often giggle at everything Zeke would say. John would over-compliment Emily. They once invited Zeke and Emily into a foursome, which triggered one of Zeke’s rage fits even though he’d fantasized about swapping wives, which was primarily a veiled fantasy where he had sex with Demi. She was thinner and more buxom than Emily, though he felt as if he’d betrayed something just thinking about her.
“How’s he doing?” Demi asked.
“Well,” Emily said, and he could hear the shortness in her tone. The you need to fucking leave me alone and go away voice he was only too familiar with. “He’s been working from home.” Which was true. He was working on a software update for his firm’s biggest client, a credit-card processing branch of a large bank. With everyone confined to stay-at-home, it felt like the population had flocked to online shopping. There was a deadly virus that would rid the world of people like Zeke, but Karen from Duluth, Minnesota couldn’t live without a new suede blue jacket, likely made in a sweatshop somewhere. Everyone gets exploited in the chain of commerce, except the person at the top.
John and Demi finally left, and he heard his wife’s footsteps as she moved to the kitchen. Emily was the driving force behind his isolation. Zeke still sat in on family dinner, albeit at a distance. The basement though, that was his domain. Only Duggie came down when he snuck past Emily’s sentry. The basement was meant to be a clean space. Zeke had his own fridge Emily kept stocked, and he slept on the couch. The media room was down there, so he had the good TV, the movie library, and the Xbox. She didn’t know it, but Zeke also had the bag of pot they’d bought ten years ago and forgot about, and the water bong that was last used the night his daughter was conceived.
He had everything he needed to survive the pandemic in the basement, but Zeke would’ve gladly given it all up to have his family back, to have the last half year be nothing but a bad dream, to have his wife back. He thought Emily might want the same thing. Whenever they watched the news and she saw stupid people protesting the stay-at-home order or people complaining about being forced to wear a mask, she’d end up screaming at the television in a rage of unfairness. It made Zeke think there was some small chance their marriage could be salvaged.
He browsed the internet for awhile and settled on a story where stray animals were spreading COVID to the elderly who would feed them and pet them.
The basement door opened and Emily yelled down, “Dinner in ten.” She closed it before he could respond.
The virus had shone a light on how little Emily seemed to like being around him. In three months they’d had sex once. She wore a mask and asked him to hurry up. Emily, at times, showed all the romance of a sea slug.
His laptop chimed. Dillon, his new boss, was trying to connect a video call.
On a Saturday.
Zeke slipped on his headset. “Hey, I’m about to eat.”
“Don’t care,” Dillon said. He was a few years younger, and single, which was why Zeke thought he’d gotten the promotion to branch chief over him. “Can you check social security numbers against the stimulus response checks?”
“Sure,” Zeke said without thinking. “Isn’t that against the law?”
“Don’t care. Legal says there’s a clause in the relief bill that lets us pull payments posted to negative balance accounts. We need to do it before Monday.”
Zeke felt his chest seize. He gasped for his next breath. “Dillon, people need that money to survive.”
“Not my fucking problem,” Dillon said. “Not yours either. You got one hell of a bonus last quarter. You want to keep those checks coming, this is what needs to happen. I’m offline till Monday morning. I want this done. Write the code, pull in whoever you need, just make it happen.”
He closed the connection before Zeke could respond.
He understood how Dillon had gotten promoted. Profits over everything. Zeke wasn’t sure if he could even execute the code Dillon wanted—though technically he could do it since he’d already written the software for balance reconciliation against new deposits. It was the morality he couldn’t balance.
It was the shopping cart principle. Shopping carts are a litmus test of self-government and one of the defining measures for a good person (along with tipping and helping an animal in need). It’s a measurement of an individual’s ability to contribute to society. It works out like this – everyone uses shopping carts when they buy groceries, but no one is forced to return them. It’s the right thing to do, and there’s absolutely no legitimate reason not to do it. While there’s no reward for returning a shopping cart, it’s generally accepted as appropriate—you borrow something, you return it. Leaving carts around causes problems for other shoppers and clutters up the parking lot. People who return shopping carts understand this. People who don’t return shopping carts exhibit a classic sign of selfish behavior—if they aren’t forced to do something, even if it’s the right thing to do like self-isolate or wear a mask during a pandemic, they don’t do it. They are self-absorbed people with no sense or care for the damage of their actions. They demonstrate immorality and a social intelligence that’s little more than animal instinct.
Zeke closed his laptop and headed upstairs so he didn’t have to think about it any longer.
“Daddy!” Sarah said, running up to wrap her arms around his legs. At eight, she was growing rapidly. “We FaceTimed with Grampa.”
“No touching!” Emily shouted from the kitchen.
Sarah recoiled, stepped back. “Sorry.”
Zeke crossed his arms. “How’s he doing?”
“He’s going to a protest about the stay-at-home.”
Zeke figured his father would be the type. “Well, he knows the risk and it’s his choice. Sometimes grown-ups make bad decisions.”
“He, um, said…”
Zeke hadn’t been on good terms with his father since before his mother passed. They’d always been different. According to him it was Zeke’s kind, the bleeding-heart pussy liberal scum, who ruined the country. In truth, Zeke and his father were at odds long before the current political climate tipped the balance. It was a standard in the Barlow children that Zeke hoped to break—fathers disappointed in sons who didn’t turn out to be just like them.
“It’s okay, champ, I know Grampa isn’t always nice toward me. Go wash up for dinner.”
Emily watched from the kitchen. “Stop giving your father hugs, damnit!”
Zeke let out a heavy sigh. The weight of loneliness in his own house seemed crushing at times, and it was all he could do to keep breathing, to push back just a little.
Moving to the kitchen, he grabbed a tumbler from the rack, triggered the ice-maker to drop a few cubes in, and filled the rest with vodka.
“I’m not buying more when you run out,” Emily said. He wanted to shoot back: I’ll just drink your premixed margaritas, but he decided it wasn’t a battle worth winning. He slipped onto the deck, closing the sliding glass door behind him. Though the deck was only a few feet off the ground, it felt to him like sitting on a vast ship above a pale green sea of grass that needed to be cut. He sunk into a blue Adirondack chair and sipped his drink. The truth of the world, he thought, the truly terrifying thing, is that no one is truly in charge. It’s the bullies we let make the rules who tend to lead.
He watched the glow of the evening sun as it sank behind the trees, the pattern of filtered light slipping across the deck as a faint meow sounded. Zeke turned in time to see a cat leap onto the deck. It was black with white paws Sarah had cleverly named Mittens. The cat meowed again, leapt to the table, sniffed the air, and made its way to the edge, where it sat and watched Zeke. “I know how you feel,” he said, raising his glass to the cat. He swallowed most of his drink and thought about his life. If it were a movie, would it be a tragedy? Certainly not a romantic comedy or an action flick. If he died tomorrow, he thought, he’d leave nothing behind but the gift of guilt.
Mittens leapt onto his lap and began purring. Zeke smiled and stroked the cat’s soft fur. There was something about being wanted by a cat that made all his problems fade away.