This is the worst of times—a plague. Our leaders are confused, afraid, and often incompetent. The competent ones are getting fired. Those who’ve seen too much fall out of windows, sometimes hang themselves, and are prone to accidents. Citizens with loaded guns stroll public places. Chances are I won’t get gunned down by some madman, but it happens every week.
This virus is a stealthy killer that can be delivered on a cardboard pizza box. The odds for me: a 50/50 chance of getting Covid. This is not the best time to be elderly. I’m 85 now and I’m told to stay at home. The virus will kill you—almost certain death might well be waiting on a doorknob, or airborne surfing on a stranger’s sneeze.
I’m not afraid of death, but I would rather not leave this world gasping for breath with my face in a ventilator, surrounded by strangers in masks and gowns and gloves afraid to touch me. I haven’t left the house in three months.
Those first few weeks I rearranged the closet, cleaned up rooms and cluttered drawers. Got rid of things I’ll never use or need. I had a burst of energy, but in these last few weeks it began to fade away. Drawers have re-cluttered, and rooms need cleaning again, but I’ve lost interest. I feel lazy, tired for no reason, surfing the internet and watching movies on TV. I’ve read a couple books as days grew long and boring. I can handle this, I tell myself, but I’ve run out of whisky.
It has been three weeks since my last drink. I should have thought ahead and stocked up, but who knew? I’m slow at times, but healthy. Can I afford to take the risk of stepping out into a toxic atmosphere? Is whisky worth risking my life, and the lives of those I might come in contact with? I decide it is.
* * *
I’ve been wearing the same sweat suit for days and sometimes sleep in it— it’s just me alone here. I put on a pair of slacks and a clean sweatshirt, find my car keys and a pair of thin plastic gloves a neighbor left me, then throw on a jacket. It’s the middle of May and still cold. There was light snow two days ago—a typical Swedish spring.
I get into my car, put the gloves on the passenger seat and shove the key into the ignition slot. I give it a twist, but there’s not even a whimper of effort. I click the radio on—nothing. Battery’s totally dead. I haven’t used the car in weeks. The guy across the street has a charger, but who has he touched? Has someone sneezed on him? There’s no alternative. I make a phone call and Fredrik comes a half hour later with the charger, helps hook it up and says, “It’s going to take a couple hours to get the charge back up.” I go back into the house and look at TV news to pass the time.
I’m watching riots in the States and other places, buildings burning. The world’s gone crazy. I change channels and there’s a riot in Hong Kong, and protests in England with crowds of tightly packed protesters. Their cause is more important than my whisky problem, but we all have limits to our tolerance. I go back out a couple hours later and the Volvo starts without protest. It feels good to be on the road again.
I see an old lady who is a decade younger than me waiting at a bus stop. She’s a neighbor who lives alone and does not drive. There’s’ a kid, maybe twelve years of age, sitting on a bench a meter or so from where she stands. He’s coughing directly at her, a phony cough, harassing her for no apparent reason. She’s wearing a mask and ignoring him, but I can see she’s annoyed. I pull over and open the passenger side door for her.
“That little bastard was driving me crazy,” she says as she gets in. She’s sitting on my gloves. The kid leaves his seat and comes over to cough on the car. I give him the finger as we leave.
“It’s a new thing idiots have taken up,” I tell her. “You are not the first one to be coughed at. I’ve seen mention of it on the internet.”
“It might be better not to talk in this closed space. You’re not wearing a mask,” she says.
“This is my first time out in months. You going for groceries?”
“Haircut,” she tells me.
I’m surprised. The beauty shop is a greater risk than the one I’m taking. We say nothing for the rest of the ride and I let her out in a shopping center. My gloves are smashed flat, the sides stuck together. I manage to open them and fumble a two kroner coin from the cup holder to feed a parking meter. I drop the coin twice while trying to get it in the slot. It’s hard to hold things with these plastic gloves. It seems weird to be wearing them.
I see a few others on the sidewalk and none are wearing gloves. Do I look silly wearing mine? Most of the businesses I pass are closed, but liquor stores are open. Each week I read new Swedish thoughts about the virus, but they’re not mandates, they’re only published as suggestions. Our leaders assume people are intelligent—always a risk.
As I approach the liquor store I see a series of yellow tapes stuck horizontally to my side of the sidewalk, to keep people apart from each other while in line, but there is no one waiting at the moment. Good. I make a quick saunter to the shelf where they keep the Seven Oaks whisky. How many should I buy? How many can I carry? The gloves make it hard to hold onto things. I have a paper bag full of paper bags at home, but didn’t think to bring one.
I stick a bottle under my arm and hold two others in my hands. At the checkout counter and take one of the plastic bags they sell. I’ve read the virus lives for days on plastic. I’ve got gloves on, but when I get home should remove the bottles with my gloves on, then peel off the gloves? No—wash bottles with gloves on, then hold the empty bag with one gloved hand and peel the other glove off without touching the exposed surface. I’m still thinking about it when the cashier motions me to come forward. The bag and bottles come to her on a conveyor belt. How many bottles rode this belt today, all touched by someone without gloves?
The gal behind the counter doesn’t wear a mask. She smiles a cashier’s smile and I feel sorry for her, for the risk she’s taking for a paycheck—here all day having hundreds of conversations, but at least she’s got a job. A lot of us do not. First of the month tomorrow. Rent is due.
“That will be seven hundred Kroner,” she says as I try to get my billfold out—these damn gloves. I fumble with it as another customer comes up behind me with no gloves or mask. He puts his bottles on the belt. I finally manage to get the wallet from my pocket, but have trouble removing my credit card. The guy behind me moves in closer as I stick it in a slot and punch the keys hundreds have pushed before me. You cannot escape this shit. I take the card back and put my bottles in the plastic bag.
I pass through the virus laden door again, onto the sidewalk moving past the yellow tapes. A woman’s coming toward me, with a mask. Is she’s smiling? She has paused beside me.
“You are old,” she says.
“I know that. I’ve been lucky.”
“You should wear a mask,” she says. “Both for your own good and for mine.”
“This is the first time I have left the house in months,” I tell her.
“Right. That’s what you all say.” She moves on, not smiling. I feel sure of it.
I make it home without further incident and throw the plastic bag and gloves in the garbage, then pour a double shot of whisky from an unwashed bottle. The soothing burn as it goes down my throat feels good. God damn! This will not be my last time out. Only God knows if there’s a glove-borne virus waiting for me on the Volvo’s steering wheel.