We were fully in our Covid times, hosting vigil to the insidious slow-creep of the virus along her unseen vectors. Week One saw the binge buying – the serious faces, but we were civil to one another, and some of us still bought flowers for our loves and saw that as a necessity. By Week Two, the rationing came, and social distancing duct tape along the floors. The teenagers behind the cash register in all the essential stores lost their defiant spark. They looked sad; like canaries twitching in an ancient coal miner’s lamp. There was no sound.
By Week Three, all services shuttered and there was not a surgical glove to be found. Face masks, somehow, were still not the norm. The outside lines began and some of us became walkers then, filled with intrinsic worry. We hesitated and gave up the charade of social pleasantry. It was a furtive twitching, a mission so isolated, to get in and to get out, and to hell with you. It all made sense. We vicariously noted that each one of us swam in the vector by now. We put in calls to each of our friends and we even called our fallen friends; perhaps out of nostalgia, sentiment and remorse. Sequestered, we considered the scent of lilies along with the words: war footing, one day at a time. We felt helpless when our souls went broke.
The warm weather came. There is always a spring. Robins by now, common place, paired up and became chubby. Canada geese chose their “one mate for life,” and those fearless buzzards ruled the roadside, oblivious to their own peril. They nested by puddles.
During Week Four, there was still some freedom of movement. I arose early with a list of staples, life-saving supplies, some might say. The store opened at 7, and the sleeping giant was not yet awakened by droves. It felt like a mission. I was under strict orders to get the milk and the bread, noting we had enough toilet paper by Week One. In block letters, in the beautiful feminine font of my daughter, I saw that I was to purchase (a.) waffles and other (a.) a specific bottle of coconut lavender hand sanitizer. Like her mother, the words “do not get the wrong brand” were implicit in her young woman’s script. During Week Two, a compassionate cashier had given me a fist full of surgical gloves, so I gowned up and drove forthwith to the store. I did not kill any of the Canada geese. In fact, the fellow ahead of me shared the same tenderness for the innocence of life that I do.
I released a shopping cart from its metallic grip and approached the one door that was not sealed off. A young security guard stood vigil outside. She had a forlorn look, and I could tell she wished she had a real gun. I greeted the woman, inspected her, said something funny that made her smile, and she stood down. It was an odd encounter. Even though she was outside and I had not entered her store, I had a vague feeling that I either already stole something or was about to. Conscience is an odd thing, really. It was only Week Three; social order had not broken down and the Civil Emergency Alert had not yet appeared on our Google internet reports. The security guard let me pass.
The grocery store was quiet. There were a few masked couples and one or two twenty-somethings who still held their foolish world by its tail. With bare-handed, care-free, germ-besotted hands, I was not surprised that they held onto it. I exercised my right to social distance and made haste to the cooler.
1 bag of milk, per customer please, declared the sign. But there was no milk left, so I took my portion of nothing and found some orange juice instead – the last jug of “pulp-free.” I scored a loaf of bread on a long, lonesome shelf, some Ceramica Bella for our floors, eight baby-tins of tomato paste, Nutella, and a box of Italian chocolates. I prayed that in Aisle Ten there would be the waffles. There were. I had not eaten a waffle since ’81. There is no redeeming nutritional value to a waffle, but I read that Italian chocolates were a good buffer to germs. I never eat chocolate, but I felt less helpless. Having realized this truth, I saw, as well, the redeeming value of a father’s wish to make his daughter happy. It is important to be victorious in unsettled times.
I mentally crossed off my list of staples and made haste to the cosmetic section. Truly, as a man, I was out of my element. Perhaps we all are. All I saw was lipstick and sanitary pads. A salesclerk stood with a couple she knew and, for all of life, I could not catch her glance. They were too busy chatting about where to get surgical gloves. Noting same, I began to explore by myself, conscious of the time, yet wanting to get the right brand of hand creme for my loves. By the third aisle and having recently had an enforced-visual of the bottle at home, I spotted the coconut lavender hand sanitizer – the last bottle. Just as I approached it, a scented arm crossed my periphery and a madonna snatched it. She was right to. She looked to be a woman of the ancient order and I, the Canadian (il Vagabondo, as I am known in some parts), defer to her always, like the knight sworn to protect each of the blessed nonnas in our world.
Not wanting to disappoint mine angels back home, I adapted to our viral earth. Next to the last, lost bottle was a different substance, apparently made by the same company, liquid instead of foam. There were two of them, so I made a field decision and snatched one forthwith! I was happy.
As I carried it over to my shopping cart, I noticed that my right, surgical glove was slippery. All the ink on my shopping list dissolved, somehow. There were droplets on the floor and along the front of the cart where the junk food was. Like I died and went to heaven (how would I know?), the entire store began to smell scented, cloying and flowery. In the dialect of supreme cross-cultural love, I cried out, “geezis murphy!” Of course, I was too loud. Even though she was not present, my wife scolded me.
I soon saw that the lavender bottle was booby trapped, perhaps by the virus. Bastard germs! I noticed a crack along the bottom and it dripped to the cadence of my disbelief. By now, I smelled like acre upon acre of lavender, wafting in every pasture of heaven. My Eden was upended. Coconuts dropped like flies all around me. Mama jeezis mia! (in our dialect.) Disgusted, I replaced the cracked bottle, snatched the last one next to it and made my way to the cashier.
Embarrassed, I stood behind my piece of measured masking tape and the old woman in front of me turned around. The millennial couple behind me looked at each other, winced and took a step back. Lavender grew in my nostrils and I fought the urge to pluck it. My shopping cart was so hard to steer. A dozen coconuts jostled in its basket.
By now it was my turn to pay. The cashier looked up. She tilted her head in avian inspection. I saw it. She sensed my presence and I felt as if, like a bambino, I wet my pants.
“Don’t I smell pretty this morning?” I asked her, defiantly.
“You smell better than most of my customers,” she replied through her surgeon’s mask.
I paid and made my escape for the exit. People parted ways. The security guard made a reaching gesture for her non-existent holster. I swear it. Frantically, I spotted my car and made my way briskly towards it. I peeled off the surgical skin of gloves and tossed them into the garbage. I would be damned if I threw them on the road, grass, and sidewalk like the rest of this sorry, besotted planet. I sniffed my fingers and they smelled like coconuts. The grocery bags smelled like coconuts, too. And lavender. By manly instinct, I wiped my hands on my best pair of jeans. This was a mistake. I saw that my keys looked limp, like the flower. Thankfully, the car started up, but the steering wheel was slippery, like congealed coconut creme. I gagged.
Frantically, I drove home and parked in our drive way. I saw the curtains part. I knew my wife and my daughter; they already smelled me. I cried out to mia moglie! (“Help me, Honey!” In our dialect).
She came to my side and with a woman’s sage efficiency in Covid times, we unloaded the grocery bags, isolated them by nose, and placed them in a staging area in the garage.
“Leave the windows down and the garage door up,” she ordered.
To be honest, I was bruised by her tone.
Quickly, like-breathing, in the practical way that only thinking women possess, the vinegar and water-spray bottle came out. My wife triaged each bag, one bag at a time. It was not as bad as I thought, but Dio! I did not really understand the power of the perfume outside of love’s sweet ardour. Our quarantine ended, and to my chagrin we noted that two bags of cheezies and the entire box of waffles tested positive for coconut lavender hand sanitizer. So did I. Thankfully, the pasta was out of harm’s reach, and so the baby jars of tomato paste.
Summarily, my wife threw out my daughter’s waffles. I noted the garbage container actually smelled lovely for once. Thankfully, the cheezies were non-porous and the vinegar neutralized the coconut milk. My wife declared them safe to eat, or at least safe to bring into our home.
Like a security guard gone wrong, she turned to me and fired one sharp, vinegar burst straight into my chest. It was my favourite tee-shirt.
“There is nothing I can do for you,” she said, resolutely.
What else could I do but hit the showers? I peeled off my best pair of jeans and the T-shirt I loved like a brother. Even the laundry hamper taunted me in lavender, cursed out by the pungent bite of vinegar.
At the end of the day, at the dawn of Covid, in a world gone mad, we must only take it one day at the time. What is a waffle? It is hard to explain why I felt so pretty, but my daughter treated me like I had the plague.
Glenn Carley is the author of Il Vagabondo: An Urban Opera (Guernica 2021). His forthcoming books are Jimmy Crack Corn, A Novel in C-minor, and two children’s stories co-written with and illustrated by his son Nicholas: The Long Story of Mount Pester and The Long Story of Mount Pootzah (Rock’s Mills Press).