Ballad of the Vectors by Tobie Helene Shapiro

I am more careful than you can imagine. If someone rings the doorbell, I approach the door in mask and gloves. I wash my hands so frequently that the skin at my knuckles looks like parched mud, and I never go out of the house. I have to be careful. I’m sole caregiver for my parents, who are way up there in the high-risk category, and then there’s me. If being neurotic could put me in the high-risk category, they’d shoot me right to the head of the line, but I think I’d have a lot of competition, especially now. During one particularly spirited exchange, I told my parents, “Take comfort in the fact that while we’re sheltering in place, all over the world good people are getting on each other’s nerves.” It didn’t have the mollifying effect I would have liked. I meant it as a unifying, humanitarian, we’re-all-in-this-together prayer for peace with a tilt of humor. But they took it as dismissive. That was vexing but we’re locked inside until we don’t know when, so I’m learning the wisdom in “There’s nothing I can do about this” and variations on that theme.

No matter what sort of harmony or dissonance courses through our house, the point is that I can’t take a rest and I can’t get sick. If I go down, the whole house of cards falls apart—hence the extreme measures. The goal is: not one pathogen shall cross our threshold.

Volunteers do the grocery shopping—healthy, young, low-risk angels who, out of the goodness of their hearts, brave the pandemisphere to do onerous favors for a complete stranger. They deliver the bags to our door. Then this is the procedure: I climb into the closest thing I can get to a HAZMAT suit to bring the bags inside. Then I throw what I was wearing in the wash and change into the fresh clothes I had set out before I retrieved the groceries. What isn’t perishable sits in the front hall decontaminating itself while I peer at it suspiciously from a distance. The perishables come into the kitchen and get the treatment. I burn the bags. Anything we’re going to eat raw gets lined up near the sink. Let’s give it half an hour peeling the fracking labels off of the fruits and vegetables. Then they go into the tepid, soapy water, get scrubbed one at a time, rinsed, and set in the drying rack. Though I’ve been washing my hands constantly throughout this process, after I’m done I do the twenty-second-plus CDC hand wash anyway.

That’s a system and it served as an aseptic barricade against the virus until the kitchen conspired against it. I came downstairs in the morning to “the flood.” Honestly my first thoughts were to come up with a clever way to live with it as is: plastic buckets as boats, boots, DIY sandbags to contain it to the kitchen. But my parents wouldn’t be such nimble navigators, and asking them to adapt even to minor changes—a new brand of toilet paper, the discreet repositioning of an ottoman—is near impossible. I put on my mask and called Julian, who assured me of his COVID-19 precautions: beyond ICU criteria, mask, gloves, booties, he sanitizes as he goes along and after he’s done. He touches nothing but the plumbing. I was to leave the back door open so he didn’t have to touch a doorknob, then remove everything from the counters and under the sink, leave the cabinet doors open, hide upstairs, electronic billing and payment.

Even so, for two to fourteen days after the plumbing breakdown, I felt nervous, susceptible, exposed in the kitchen. What if Julian had accidentally cranked his mitts all over the gooseneck kitchen faucet and the handle, thought he’d sanitized it but had fallen victim to a case of the “this-will-have-to-do’s”? Then I come charging down to the kitchen to prepare dinner. Wash thine hands. I twist the handle to “hot” exactly where a fist droplet had been deposited. Uh‑oh, I touched the handle. So, careful not to touch my face, I spray the living daylights out of the handle and wash my hands—let’s be extra sure it’s clean and kill every tiny terrorist but forget that now the spray bottle’s trigger is contaminated. What if it turns out I have an insignificant, too-small-for-the-human-eye-to-see nick in the skin on the inside first knuckle of my right index finger? Well, Julian said he was healthy, so no problem, right? No! Wrong! One can be asymptomatic and still be COVID-19 positive, capable of passing the virus on to others. Or what if Julian was completely asymptomatic when he was here convincingly coaxing the plumbing into acceptable behavior. Suppose he’d gotten tested for COVID-19 and had gotten the results back that very morning: he was clean, negative, good to go. But because of the murderous mismanagement (meaning no management at all) by the federal government, test results don’t come back for days, sometimes weeks. Between the time Julian submitted to the nose and throat swab and the time the results came back, he’d rubbed noses with his dog, who’d been kissed on the snout by someone who picked up the virus from a droplet floating in a cloud of sneeze that was left suspended in the air four feet above the sidewalk. A jogger had bounced by wearing his mask hanging around his neck, but all he saw for forty feet in every direction was a rather small woman walking back in her front door, a whole biome from the sidewalk, so he continued maskless and passed right through the cloud of sneeze that our rather small woman had left suspended above the ground. She thought she was clean.

That very evening the jogger started to feel a little “off” and, on his wife’s wise advice, went to bed without dinner, decided to self-isolate. Two days later he came down with a very mild case of the COVID-19 virus: achy, listless, fever of 100.5, a bit congested. His wife instructed the children to stay away from Daddy. She slid his flattened meals under the door when he was feeling well enough to eat. She fed him low horizontal food on paper plates—one use only. Lying in bed, he’d been reviewing where he’d been and whom he’d had any contact with in the two weeks prior to the appearance of his symptoms. Mostly they’d been sheltering in place, even though he and his wife were both well under sixty. Unfortunately, when the order to shelter in place was issued, his wife’s parents had been visiting from Boston. They’d been there for two weeks—long enough for everyone to be getting on each other’s nerves. They had to cancel their flight home, stuck as guests with daughter and son-in-law just as their welcome had been wearing thin. Patricia was seventy and Gerald was seventy-six. Their age put the whole house in the high-risk category, so no one was going out for any but the most essential reasons. After a couple of months of this, however, getting out of the house to jog endlessly around the block qualified as “most essential,” as failing to do so put his in-laws, particularly Gerald, in a whole new high-risk category. Patty had told Gerald to leave the MAGA hat at home, but he sneaked it in his suitcase and donned it as a subtle statement every time his son-in-law stepped out of line: a sneer at the TV, an arched eyebrow at the newspaper, a muffled snort at Gerald’s logical cleft stick: Gerald was a full-blown germaphobe.

Everything was contaminated or potentially contaminated, and of course Gerald would be the judge of what was and what wasn’t. Anything left in the refrigerator for more than twenty-four hours was going to poison them all. Anything left outside the refrigerator had a safe-life of about five minutes. When he deemed something germy, he swept it into the trash. Things were disappearing and it didn’t matter how precious it was or how much time had gone into making it. The filet mignon from Monday’s dinner was in the garbage by Tuesday noon. A multi-layer Zuppa Inglese marinated in three different kinds of rare booze tossed in a bag in another bag in the garbage before they’d even had a chance to taste it. The daughter and son-in-law were trying to cope with this. And, yes, everyone was crowded into the same house.

 “What are you laughing at?” his wife asked him after a jar of pickles had been thrown out.

 “Pickles?! How does your dad feel about his commander-in-chief saying COVID is a hoax and telling his followers to go outside without masks, spit far, and breathe deeply in great crowds? Just asking.”

 “If you want to take him in public to find out, be my guest, but unless you can nail a mask to his face, you better book a room in a hotel. Think how great it will be—both of you for fourteen days in quarantine in a small room with only one TV. You can fight over which news station to watch. It’s 2020. Pick your truth.”

He thought about it. “I think I’m going to put in a few miles.”

This most essential jogging was really the only outside activity, and he wore a mask (if he saw anyone coming), kept social distance, never went into any store or stopped to talk to anyone, even if he knew that person and was hailed. No social distance was far enough. How he’d been exposed to the virus was a mystery, but still, he felt obligated to trace any and every person he’d encountered in the last fourteen days before symptoms cropped up. He came up empty. He’d spoken to no one, not even with hand signals. The only contact with a living being outside their home was the day of the eternal jog when he’d dropped off a bag of Meyer lemons from their prolific tree for their neighbor, Julian. And he hadn’t even seen Julian or his wife or any member of his family. All he saw was their dog, Shakespeare, lounging in the sun on the front steps. He dropped the bag of lemons at the door, gave adorable little Shakespeare a kiss on the nose, rang the bell through his shirt, and jogged off. Certainly he’d put no one at risk.

What about that woman returning to her house? What could she possibly have done to contract the virus? She thought she was clean. She’d just left her house to collect the mail from their little Quonset hut of a mailbox perched in a cubby carved out of the topiary that used to be shaped like a chicken, but they’d had to suspend services from the gardener during the pandemic, so the hedge was now shaped more like someone who desperately needed a haircut, as did everyone right about then. It was all dead leaves, car exhaust, and candy wrappers that were still left there, stuck in the branches from where the middle-school kids tossed them as they walked by on their way to and from school. That chicken used to stand on one side of the walkway to the front door and the rooster on the other. But now there was this needs-a-haircut on one side of the path and a single-celled explosion on the other. She could kind of make out the cockscomb and the tail feathers if she stared at it for long enough, but it could have been a wishful hallucination. Stuck in the house for months now, her daring walks to the mailbox were her only outing, like a vacation from closed doors and four walls, from a house falling to dust, disorder, and disrepair now that the housekeeper had been banished to her own shelter in place. She thought she also needed a vacation from her husband, who was still doing his best to turn the place into chaos with his hardware projects all over the house, abandoned right where he gave up or decided something else was more urgent, which could be lunch or a nap. From the front door to the mailbox and back was a mask-free zone, like a pathogen eruv redefining an outdoor space as home and keeping it safe. So she walked up the path to collect the mail, enjoying the strange outside world. Everything looked forgotten, suspended and waiting for time to resume, though there was evidence that time had passed. She found the hedge had finally shifted its weight, flopped, top-heavy, over the front of the mailbox. She had to force the branches aside, and when she yanked the lid open, a burst of dirt and detritus flipped up into her face. That’s when she sneezed, reflexively turning her head as if the mailbox would be affronted by the plume of dirt and detritus coming back at it. A few days’ worth of junk mail and bills in her arms, she went back into the house. She didn’t give a nanosecond’s thought to that sneeze. It was out in the open air, no one in sight. She was a good citizen.

Good citizen, yes, but she was a vector. The day she notified the gardener and the housekeeper that due to the pandemic, she had to send them home for the time being, both the housekeeper and the gardener had already been exposed. Both lived with their families, lots of kids, lots of coming and going, friends, extended family, no end to the contacts. It was the housekeeper who shed a tear, hugged her employer, and left.

Did our citizen-vector test positive with the virus two to fourteen days after that hug? No. Actually not. It wasn’t the hug that did it. It was later, after the housekeeper received the letter telling her that she would be kept on the payroll for the duration of the pandemic. It was so generous and such a relief that she sent a card back, enclosing a treasured milagro in gratitude. It was a polished tin heart that she gave to her brother with the heart murmur, but a miracle had settled on her brother, and at his last visit to his cardiologist, the murmur had disappeared, which meant he was no longer in the high-risk category. He felt so blessed that he left the house without a mask and, ten days later, came down with COVID. He spent seventeen days in bed, holding on to the tin heart, feeling less and less gratitude for that heart miracle as his fever rose and every breath was hard work. But he did survive. When he did, he placed the milagro back in its fancy envelope and returned it to his sister without further commentary. Dolores, our vector’s housekeeper, took it as a sign that the milagro was a piece of blessing in physical form. That’s when she sent it to her employer. Share the miracle.

Dolores hadn’t touched the milagro after her brother returned it to her. She got the virus from someone, maybe everyone, in her house. She no longer even tried to count the number of people hanging out or staying overnight or visiting from somewhere else. Her teenagers were the worst. Umberto, for instance, seventeen years old, dreaded school with a passion until the shutdown, when he realized he couldn’t see Tiffany—no more voracious kissing in back of the temporaries. Dolores prayed they wouldn’t open up the schools. The kindergartners, well, okay, they could be obedient, especially if properly terrified, but the teenagers? They all thought they were Romeo and Juliet. She caught Umberto sneaking back into the house past midnight, unmasked. She knew where he’d been.

 “You idiot! What the hell were you doing out there without a mask?! If you get sick, we all get sick. You trying to kill us?!”

And Romeo said about Juliet: “But Mom! We love each other!”

I got that email, forwarded from a friend of a friend of a friend. It said that if I gargled with hydrogen peroxide for fifteen minutes every day and took deep breaths for another fifteen, just to keep my lungs elastic, it would fend off the virus. Also I should take my temperature every morning. If it was normal, I was safe; if not, it’s too late—the virus has already spread throughout your body, and your lungs have been converted into feruminous oxytosiline thaterylaminate. The authors, a team from Stanford and “some leading doctors in Taiwan,” added that in the event of feruminous oxytosiline thaterylaminated lungs, it would be “extremely bad.” So ignorance is not bliss.

I was thinking about that email, particularly about the mefumitous oxtifosytilinine laterylthimionated lung business, as I sprayed the living daylights out of the kitchen after Julian’s departure. As agreed upon beforehand, he left the back door open so he wouldn’t slime his germs all over the doorknob or touch the hardware or the molding around the door on his way out. I kicked the door closed and considered putting my slipper through the CDC twenty-second scrubathon, but it’d already been a long haul, trapped inside a house with a couple of petulant 87‑year‑old toddlers, no matter how adored. And so I threw caution to the winds and decided I was safe enough if I just didn’t use the tainted slipper as a ladle. We take our lives in our hands this way, a little bit at a time. Yes, we’re vigilant—at first. But after the diligent employee at Costco has sanitized the shelves for the hundredth time, it’s become rote and the mind can wander. Multi-tasking: the death of vigilance. He’s at the end of aisle 24B with his spray bottle and rags. Something judders him to consciousness, and he asks himself, “I don’t remember. Did I do the middle shelf near the paper products?” He answers, “Probably,” and moves on.

There are convoluted, one-lane roads along the western edge of California. On one side is forest or hills or brush or fields of weeds. On the other is a dead drop to the Pacific Ocean. I’ve driven those roads hundreds of times. At just that time of day, coming up on a hairpin curve, the sun smacks me in the eyes, and I can’t see a thing, only a blinding light. There may be a car coming in the opposite direction. Maybe not. But maybe. I hold my breath and keep driving. So far I haven’t plunged to my death. Same for the virus. I haven’t gotten it yet. But then everyone is fine until the moment they aren’t. We rely on each other, whether we can or not. To that unknown extent, my mantra applies: “There’s nothing I can do about this” and variations on that theme.

Tobie Shapiro is a composer and cellist who has also worked as a visual artist, cartoonist, graphologist, and professional chef. She was a columnist for the East Bay Phoenix and has been published or is forthcoming in American Writer’s Review, Bluestem, Cobalt Review, Santa Fe Writers Project, Entropy, Songwriter Magazine,The Monthly, The Penmen Review, Pisgah Review, The Coachella Review, and in the anthology Fire in the Hills: A Collective Remembrance (1992). She has attended numerous writing conferences with The Opening and studied with Andy Couturier. She lives in Berkeley, California, with her family.

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