Brian Murphy is a stay-at-home father, Skaana Podcast Researcher, and up-and-coming writer working on his first novel, In His Head. After a fifteen year career in safety management asking what drives the decisions that alter our lives, his work now focuses on these themes. With no current permanent address, he lives and writes wherever he is.
Tuesday 9:59am Mary dashes across the front of the store into the breakroom. At the rack of cards on the wall, she fumbles for hers, knocking others to the ground—finally finding her name, swiping just before it turns 10:01am. "Yeeeessssssssss! Hell, yes!" she exhales the words as a smile spreads across her face. She pauses—looks around, ensures that no one has witnessed her impromptu celebration, then begrudgingly drags her feet to her small, wall-mounted locker and dials the combo. The echoes of customer arguments over out-of-stock items flood her mind as she opens the tiny door and grabs her orange vest and nametag. She reluctantly takes the mask and pulls the loops over her ears—low enough that her nose remains uncovered. She finds her friend, Tamika, perched behind the customer service desk—elbows on the counter, eyes wandering the store. Mary approaches as the phone begins to ring. "You gonna get that?" she asks Tamika, trying to smile underneath the face-covering. “Nope, you’re gonna do it,” Tamika says, giving Mary a playful sideways glance, her soft brown skin wrinkling around her eyes. Mary picks up the phone, “SuperSafe pickup lane,” she says, doing her best to control the volume and tone of her voice—still furious with HR’s last “performance” conversation. “Go fuck yourself, Denise!” She thinks—knowing the tiny speaker in the customer call box outside has no hope of competing with the city's noise. Mary waits, hears nothing, repeats, “SuperSafe pickup lane.” Pressing Mute, she turns to Tamika and, in a dopey voice, says, “Hi-uh-yeah, I just pushed this button, but I don’t know what it does. Can you help me?” Her eyes cross at the end. Mary catches a faint response, garbled sound but no words. She decides for one last try before giving up and walking out there. Taking the phone off Mute, “I couldn’t hear you; what’s the name?” “Aaahhhh, Tiffany Rich!” a woman’s annoyed voice yells back. Sharp, whiny vowels sting Mary’s ear, forcing her to pull the phone away—but as she brings it back, she hears the woman mumble, “Idiot.” Mary looks over to Tamika, rolls her eyes—Tamika chuckles. "Be right out," Mary says, pressing End Call. Tamika, using a shrill, fraying voice—"Uhhhh—can you hurry up and get my organic chai latte with Algerian macadamia nut milk and the secret sugar that tastes good but won't make me fat—the expensive one for stupid spoiled whores?" Without missing a beat, Tamika changes her voice to that of a bewildered young woman, now mocking Mary. "Well m-m-m-m-miss, m-ma-ma-ma-mam, we uh, we uh, don't have nothin' to do with the Starbrowns in here, we uh …" “Fuck you,” Mary returns, smiling softly. “Well, you go along now—and don’t forget to offer a complimentary foot massage!” Tamika digs, turning her head, curly dark hair falling over her petite shoulder. Eyes wide open, hands on cheeks, mouth in an “O” shape—Mary gives Tamika a look of horror—then begins walking towards the refrigerated lockers at the store entrance. "Wait, dear!” Tamika calls out. “Do remember to wash your hands while singing the national anthem forward and reverse, then seven happy birthdays to Oprah!" Mary turns her head and shouts back, "They’re gonna have to hogtie me, wash my hands, and do the singin'!" At the lockers, her slim nineteen-year-old body fluidly heaves the bags labeled "Rich" into the cart—months of performing the same actions have automated her to the task. Locks of long straight blonde hair begin to fall into her face; she brushes them away with her fingers as she notices a customer walking past staring at her chest. She ignores him and continues to work. Outside, Mary sighs as she pushes the cart towards the closed trunk of an overpriced SUV idling in the pickup lane. She waits patiently for the rear gate to open but instead overhears the tail end of a phone conversation. “… so, you can go poop again! And you don’t have to use your hands to wipe?” a man’s laughing voice announces across the speakers. “Eeww!” exclaims Tiffany, flirtatiously feigning disgust. The man's voice returns, "Good for you, though—finally getting shit paper! You can cancel that order for the bidet! Just think how much money you are saving!” "Greeeiig," she whines, continuing to bait him on—but the conversation falls silent. Mary is about to knock on the rear window when Tiffany suddenly barks, "What is taking that little bitch so long? I mean, I am just sitting here like I don’t have anything better to do!" Greg’s laughter erupts once more. “What exactly do you have to do right now?” he asks. "Oh—you know what I mean," Tiffany says, exasperated. "There is no one even in front of me!” Mary approaches the passenger's side window and gently knocks as she pulls the covering from her face, quickly rubs her nose, and points to the trunk. Tiffany looks up, surprised, angry. “Can you open your trunk?” Mary fights to coolly deliver. Tiffany nods. Mary returns to the rear of the vehicle, but the trunk does not open. Mary hears Tiffany resume the call. “But we definitely need to talk more…maybe see each other?” she says softly. "I don't know about that right now …" Greg’s voice trails off. "But I gotta jump, so we'll catch." Tiffany’s, “Ok,” barely audible over the car announcement, “Call ended.” Mary hears a pop and whir at the rear of the vehicle and is immediately joined by a mask-less Tiffany. Mary does her best to ignore her and focus on getting the groceries in the car. "Maybe 34 or 35 … and a wedding ring," Mary thinks as she steals glances of her and continues to move bags into the trunk—but becomes slightly distracted by Tiffany's multi-colored leggings and skin-tight shirt. "Poor spandex outfit never stood a chance," she muses. “What is that?” Tiffany snaps. Mary can hear the tone in her voice, the one her mother uses. Mary looks at Tiffany, waits stiffly, confused, and yet prepared. Tiffany’s index finger and arm extend like the reaper, pointing to the last bag placed in the car. “Are those non-organic baby carrots? Really? What are you people even doing here? I would never order non-organic!” Mary knows organic has been out-of-stock and that someone already called Tiffany about it, but she likely ignored the call. "Ever since this fucking pandemic started," Mary thinks. " ‘My organic bullshit isn’t here today—just throw a tantrum, and surely whatever I want appears.’ The shelves inside are empty, but of course we have organic carrots hidden in the back for all the work-from-home bitches with an attitude." "Organic is not in stock right now, but I can take them off your order," Mary waits for Tiffany's inevitable attempt to argue the item into existence. “What do you mean it is out?” Tiffany shouts. “I placed my order a week ago. All you people had to do was order it and put it in the bag. Why is that so hard? Don’t you people do your jobs? I want to talk to a manager right now—this is unacceptable!” "I’ll take it off your order—get you a new receipt," Mary says—but Tiffany is rifling through the bags in her trunk, still insulted by the inferior produce. "Where is my Perrier? Why did I even place an order here if you people can put, or not put, whatever you want in my bags? This is ridiculous!" Mary tries to respond, but Tiffany cuts her off, practically pushing Mary out of the way as she now inspects the bags in the cart. "And what kind of cashew milk is this? This is not what I ordered!" She pauses, looks at Mary—who lets out a small cough. “You aren’t even wearing a mask? You can’t stand this close to me!” Tiffany heaves the words at Mary as she takes a step back. “What kind of crappy operation is this? I’m taking my business elsewhere!” Mary begins hoping. Mary pulls the cover back over her face as she clenches her teeth, releasing only to speak. “Look, I’m real sorry—I’ll ask the manager to give you double your money back on these.” Mary hurries to put the other bags into the car, then pulls the carrots and cashew milk out. She knows that if she can just start pushing the cart into the store fast enough, Tiffany might give up. “So, you are just leaving me with no carrots and milk? When you are the ones out of it?” Tiffany barks. Mary turns her head back, "I can give you the carrots and milk, and refund your money." “Double,” Tiffany asserts. Mary returns the items to one of the bags in the car and sighs. "I can't do that, but I will check with the manager," Mary says, dodging Tiffany’s scornful look. Mary escapes into the store, then delivers the new receipt and double refund. As she returns to customer service, she finds Tamika laughing at her. “How fun!” Tamika prods, grinning ear to ear. “What an asshole! She yelled at me for not wearing a face condom when she didn’t even have one!” Mary slumps onto the desk near Tamika. "Yeah, but she isn't on her second write-up for failing to wear her face contraception…and you are!" Tamika says, only half-joking. "You better not hang around me with no FC on!" “But I thought Black people don’t get sick,” Mary jabs, but her smile disappears at the furrow of Tamika’s brow. Tuesday 2:45pm After lunch, Mary's coffee starts kicking in. "I think Joe Exotic is kind of cute—you know in a gay, white trash sort of way," she says, smirking, raising her finger seductively to her lips, then biting it. “You would, too!” Tamika hollers, clapping and laughing. “You’d be down there in bumble-fuck nowhere, pig-tails, missin’ teeth and shit!” Both are now rolling in laughter but quickly straighten up as they see the boss heading their way. Mary tilts her head down in an attempt to casually slip her mask back into position—hoping that James did not see it down. "Mary, I need to talk to you in my office. Tamika, can you cover the pickup lane?" James is straight to business these days. Mary can see the stiff eyebrows and “you’re in trouble” stare. “Sure,” Tamika chirps as they walk away. In the office, Mary glances at James' desk and sees the stapled paperwork face-down. "Oh, come on, James," she pleads. "This time wasn't even my fault," the aw sound trailing as she slumps into the hard-plastic chair across from his. “Let’s try having you read it first—then we can discuss,” James says, belly rubbing his desk as he leans in. But now he remembers that HR told him to call them immediately whenever Mary sets foot in the office. He looks at Mary, hesitates, then interrupts, “Sorry, have to call HR too.” James watches Mary roll her eyes and continue reading. Mary, still looking down, “Yeah, but …” she starts to argue, but James has already dialed. James’ index finger is held up to silence her as he announces both of their names to HR. Mary jumps in before she can even hear a response, “Who is that? Denise?” “Good afternoon, Mary,” Denise responds, words smacking with fake HR niceness. “Look, Denise …” Mary winds up, but today is different. "I am sorry, Mary. The conversation is simple. We have told you six separate times to wear a mask. Four of those times, we asked you to sign something stating you need to comply with our COVID-19 safety policy. In two of those instances, we gave you written warnings. At this point, there is nothing left to discuss. We have store surveillance footage of you failing to wear your PPE this morning. This is your final written warning. If you fail to wear your mask again, you will be terminated,” Denise delivers with unusual directness. "Yeah, but Tamika and Jay," Mary starts but is cut off. “Mary, that conversation has nothing to do with this one. If you would like to report safety concerns about other employees to your manager, please do so after this call. Right now, we are discussing your performance issue, one that needs to be corrected immediately,” Denise’s delivers coldly. "You know, I'm thinking I need to get a lawyer; this isn't right. I got rights, you know. You can't just make up rules to fire people you don't like," Mary argues. Denise responds, "Ok, Mary, but this is not a debate. Either you will sign the document, or we will record that you did not sign it. Either way, it goes in your file. Either way, the consequences are the same." “I’m not signin’ it!” Mary stands and exits the room. At the customer service counter, seething with anger, “I should just quit! They don’t even know what I do for my customers! They’ll all leave if I’m not here—all the good ones! This store will be screwed with all these clueless new hires! They can’t even find the fucking coffee half the time!” Mary rants—pacing behind the counter—closer than Tamika wants. Tamika steps out from behind the counter and watches. She can see that Mary is pissed, but she can’t help herself. “Did they finally assign you a personal hand washer? Maybe she can finally show you how to use the soap and water—ya know—after ya poop!” Tamika blurts with a laugh. “C’mon, it’s not funny,” Mary’s anger transforms to lament. “I can’t lose my job right now. Ed ain’t makin’ shit drivin’.” "Is that your mom's new bang-mate, Ed?" Tamika asks, knowing Mary spends half her day complaining about him. Mary ignores her, “And where am I gonna find another job now? This is bullshit!” Mary looks desperately towards Tamika—the phone rings. Mary sighs, picks up the phone, “SuperSafe pickup lane.” “Uhhh-yeah … ooooohhh yeah … do you like that baby?” A tween male voice squeaks. Mary pretends to be annoyed, “What do you perverts want?” “Do you like it? Do you like that baby? Oohhhh, I bet that gets you so hot when I lick your box like this …" the words cracking into childish laughter. “Wait, you guys aren’t actually dumb enough to lick that box out there, are you?” Mary asks, knowing the answer. The boys begin to laugh harder as she hangs up. “You’re gonna end up like all those other cute white ladies that get up with tweens,” Tamika taunts. “What do you want me to do? Cut their little things off? They ain’t gonna stop till they’re missin’!” Mary scoffs. Tuesday 4:30pm Mary and Sarah return from another COVID-related staff meeting—Tamika, behind the desk, has already attended a previous session. Mary looks at the two of them, “Why is James such a tool?” “Ahhh, white people,” Tamika sighs disappointedly. “What?” Mary asks. “You listen to every word of those corporate Kool-Aid meetings…that’s your problem right there,” Tamika responds dryly. “Do you think that listening to James trying to sell us some nonsense about how the company cares for our health and well-being is going to change anything? In the meantime, if we get COVID, there is no sick time…even if we catch it here. I mean, a person could get downright angry if they thought that the company they work for is unwilling to ensure that they have proper access to testing, refuses to install basic safety measures like plexiglass for the cashiers, is unwilling to staff people to wipe carts, won’t consider pushing stocking to overnight, holds meetings with us together in one room, and yet expects their employees won’t get sick.” “So, you did listen,” Mary says, satisfied. “Of course, I listened! Two of our co-workers tested positive, and another one is awaiting results!” Tamika cuts back. “Jordan is probably fakin’, though,” Mary responds. “Wait, Jordan, who never goes home sick—the one that never misses a shift? The same one that was sweating bullets and looking like he was going to pass out until James told him to punch out? That one? I mean, you were working with him, you tell me,” Sarah responds. “I suppose that is good for you, though? You’re quickly turning into the cat with nine extra written warnings since we are so shorthanded.” “Yeah, this has been Mary’s plan all along,” Tamika says, grinning. “Get sick and take us out one at a time!” “Dammit, T,” Mary responds. “Don’t tell everyone—it’s supposed to be a secret!” The ladies laugh. “How are you feeling?” Sarah asks, looking at Mary. “You know me, I always feel like shit—but this diet is killing me,” Mary says. The three notice James returning from the meeting—they disband to their work. Tuesday 6:15pm Mary's excitement begins to subtly grow—almost time to punch out, "The closest thing to happiness these days," she thinks. As she returns to customer service, she feels her pocket begin to buzz, takes out her phone, and starts to pull her mask down but quickly remembers to push it back in place. "Goddamn nanny state," she mutters under her breath. Mary sees the text from her eight-year-old sister, Gracie. Gracie – Mom won’t get out of bed today Mary – You gotta wake her up! She can’t keep missing or she will get fired again! Gracie – I tried! She only gets up for the bathroom! Mary – Did you text her boss from her phone yet? Gracie – Yeah Mary – Be home soon Mary returns the phone to her pocket as she steps behind the counter. Tamika is on overtime again, but with no relief coming in, she keeps working until she is told to go home almost daily. She finishes with the last customer from a long line of people ignoring the brightly colored spots on the floor labeled “6 Feet Social Distance.” Tamika turns to Mary, "I uh, I just heard some bad news." “How do you even say something is bad anymore? I mean, everything is bad, right?” Mary responds, still fantasizing about the day Ed finally leaves. "Well, this one is gonna change some shit," Tamika says, the gravity of the situation becoming evident in her voice. "Trump just held a press conference—and uh, I guess he said that we don't have any more money—unemployment, hospitals, schools …" she pauses, face falling into despair. "He said we are declaring bankruptcy as a nation—and this is serious—but we are very fortunate because he has a lot of experience with this sort of thing." She hovers in the moment, waiting for the angry look from Mary, then continues. "Donald said he is the best bankruptcy negotiator and he called the weak and puny China and they agreed to every single one of his terms. We are going strip and sell what we can, but we can’t let the bean counters from the IRS know about it." A grin tugs behind Tamika’s mask, "China will take the good cities—whatever that means; and BP and Exxon said they would buy the national parks. He also said something about indentured servitude to work off the debt to China—but I think that is more of a white people thing? Oh, and McDonald's bought the White House—so I guess they are in charge now—but they are adding a drive-through lane!" Mary shakes her head and tries not to smile, "Can’t accept how much better Trump is than Obama, huh?" Mary's phone buzzes again. She takes it out and notices it is time to punch-out. A quick goodbye, then she heads for the clock that started this miserable shift. Tuesday 7:00pm At home—a small, ground-level, two-bedroom apartment—Mary heads straight to the room she shares with her sister. She changes into a tank top and shorts, then walks to the door of her mother's room. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Ed says, his mouth lazy from drinking all day. “She said to leave her the fuck alone,” his eyes never leave the TV as he says it, but he points his lit cigarette at the screen as though he was communicating with it. Mary sees his gut hanging out of his sweat pants. “Must have put on his pandemic fifteen,” Mary thinks. “The closest thing to college he’ll ever get. That and the lack of showering.” Mary leans her head against Mama’s door, waits a moment for Ed to lose interest, then knocks gently. No response. She knocks again, pleading gently for a reply, "Mama?" She waits, repeats twice more, then finally decides to brave the consequences and opens the door. Inside the room, curtains drawn, lights out, and her mother is pulling the covers to shield her eyes—but the short unwashed brown bob remains visible, smushed into her head. “I thought I said to leave me alone,” her mother groans. “Don’t you ever listen to me?” she says, squeezing out the last few words, then begins to hack the phlegm out of her throat. Mary waits by the door, unphased. "Mama?" Mary asks again. Her mother moves up on the pillows, grabs something off the side table, then lights up a cigarette. "Mama, do you need me to get you anything … so you are ready for work tonight?" "Yeah, I need you to get out of my room so I can get some goddamn rest," her mother's fatigue grows with every word, then dryly whispers, "And a Sprite." "Ok, Mama," Mary says. She retrieves the soda from the refrigerator, brings it to her mother, then closes the door. Mary plops down on the couch next to Gracie—looks at her playing on her phone. “Did you do your online school stuff?” Mary asks. "Yeah," Gracie's voice bashfully trails off, chubby cheeks turn red. She confesses, "Mama and Ed said I don't have to do it because we're just gonna have to do it again when we get back anyway." "Yeah, but Mama works dispatch, and Ed is dumber than shit," Mary says softly. “I heard that,” Ed snaps, eyes still glued to Fox News. Mary gives up. She stands, strides to the dusty wooden hutch in the corner of the room, pulls open the door, grabs a bottle of vodka, and takes a good swig. Mary has become brazen about her drinking since the pandemic began. “What is that unemployed loser gonna say to me?” she reassures herself. “You ain’t payin' for that," Ed's says. "Actually, I am," she returns. Mary knows better than to provoke him, especially when he has had this much to drink, but the strain of holding in her hatred for him is becoming impossible. "Yeah, well, not as much as my unemployment is gonna be once it finally shows the fuck up," Ed snarls. “Did you finally get through?” Mary asks, knowing that Ed has not made a single attempt to call them today. "Cocksuckers," Ed mumbles, his concentration leaves the screen as Mary heads for the fridge. She can feel his eyes upon her—a creeping disgust runs her spine. The frequency and intensity of his gazes are becoming intolerable. She pulls out the OJ, drinks from the bottle, and places it back in the sparse refrigerator—a constant reminder of the stimulus checks that Mama and Ed squandered on that layaway trip to Atlantic City. Mary turns, sees his eyes move from ass to her crotch and breasts. She crosses her arms defensively. His eyes dart up to hers as he starts up, "Unemployment, huh! These motherfuckers with the masks and the goddamn shutdown! This is exactly what those rich, elitist, liberal cuck-tards wanted all along!" Mary watches as Ed progresses to "level 2," random disgruntled shouts of words. Mary winces as she thinks of her exhausted mother. "Lock everyone up at home so that they can be controlled like livestock—like prisoners,” Ed stands to deliver the message with force now. “Then let all the prisoners out because we can’t let the murderers and rapists die from the flu! Then give ‘em all the money they want, so they don’t gotta work! In the meantime, I earn a living, and I can’t get a dime! I’m going down to the capital and tellin’ that fuckin’ governor what he can do! Let’s see what that little pussy does with my gun pointed in his face!” Mary remains quiet as Ed progresses to “level 3”—now potentially loud enough for another noise complaint. "It's un-American—takin’ away my freedoms! I got rights, ya know! You can't tell me when and where I can pray!" Gracie starts to respond, “Yeah, but you don’t go to chu …” Mary gives her a hard stare, shakes her head, and mouths, “no.” Gracie stops. Mary watches the veins in Ed’s neck and temples bulge. “How many times a day does he gotta say the same shit before he finally shuts the fuck up?” Mary wonders, already knowing the answer. She can’t help pushing him over the edge as she tells him, “Ed, why you tellin’ me all this shit? You know Mama and me don’t vote. You know we don’t care.” Ed leaps out of the chair, “level 5,” "Don’t care—what the fuck!" Ed continues without breath as Mary pulls her phone out of her pocket, looks down at it, and says, "Damn, this is work; gotta take it." She exits using the kitchen's sliding glass door as he continues to shout and pace the room. She stands on the small concrete patio outside, back to Ed, beaming with delight as she listens to him screaming at the top of his lungs. Mary feels terrible for her sister, having left her inside—then her mother, but, “This one is really on Mama—she should have kicked his dumbass to the curb the second he stopped payin’ for shit,” she says to herself. To her amazement and fret, her mother does not silence the rant. Ed is left to wind down on his own. Mary concludes her pretend conversation and returns inside, proceeding to her room—where she closes the door. Lying on her bed, she taps on Tinder—a virtual meat market of the ugly and unwanted these days. It demands little effort to find an endless supply of men willing to swipe right, but almost none of them are fuckable. She scrolls past the pathetic attempts to post the "sexiest" photos and, out of desperation, swipes right on three guys. The responses are almost immediate. Kelvin – (sends a topless picture of himself, obscuring his face) "No thank you, butter face," Mary says, quickly moving on. TJ – Baby I will treat your pussy so good … gonna lic-lic-lic all-night-long! “Ok, ew, no. I am sure you have no idea what to do down there,” Mary says to herself. Adam – (sends an image, clearly a close up of the midsection of his penis) Mary hates dick pics—as a rule, she always rejects them—today, she responds. Wednesday 9:23am Mary exits the only bathroom in the apartment—she is surprised by Ed pushing past her. He flips up the seat and starts pissing without closing the door. Mary heads to the kitchen, more concerned about Ed’s car than his manners. Ed strolls into the living room and plops on a stool at the counter that separates the two rooms. He stares at her body until she cuts him off with a sharp look. His eyes drop to the ashtray. He begins his morning routine—picking the leftover tobacco out of the cigarette butts and hand-rolling it into new cigarettes. It is a nasty habit at home and downright embarrassing in public. Mary thinks of her poor mother sitting at the bar on her one night off each week and wonders why she puts up with him. Mary trembles; she might be late even if she takes his car. She measures up Ed, then shoves a breakfast bar in her pocket. A brief pause as she walks to the front door, slides on her shoes, and picks up her purse. Her fingers delicately slip Ed's keys inside—but the keychain jingles. “What in the fuck are you doin’?” Ed asks, but Mary is already closing the front door. She sprints up the half flight of stairs out into the parking lot—in a panic, running, she starts clicking the lock button on his keys until the horn honks. She turns, races for it, and jumps inside. As she fires it up and tears off, she sees Ed running out in his boxers, a t-shirt, and what looks to be her mother’s slippers. "Fuck you, Ed. Fuck you, you lazy piece of shit,” she says as she drives off, very pleased. Wednesday 10:13am Mary approaches the customer service counter, having dragged her feet getting ready. She bites into the breakfast bar, but it tastes unusually absent of flavor; she tosses it into the garbage. Tamika is on the phone, stressed, sweating. Mary's lackadaisical pace disappears—too late, Tamika is glaring at her. As Mary is about to step behind the counter, Tamika places the phone on Mute. "What are you doing?" her voice is cutting. "I know, I know, it's just that Ed wasn't gonna let me use his car …" Mary starts. "Your mask dummy, why aren't you wearing it? Do you want to get fired?" Tamika takes the customer back off Mute as Mary runs back to her locker and returns—her phone buzzes. Gracie – Mom is still in bed "Crap," Mary says under her breath as she puts the phone back in her pocket. She returns to the desk and begins working as fast as possible to help resolve the customer backlog. Wednesday 12:30pm Mary, Tamika, and Sarah lean casually at the counter service counter. “You know I saw some woman dragging around her old ass mother and a little baby around this store today,” Sarah shares. “They were touching everything, getting close to everyone, and no masks. So, I tell them, ‘Store policy is that everyone needs to wear a mask.’ And you know what that woman said to me? ‘Mind your own damn business!’” Tamika jumps in, "I mean, were they white? Because I'm pretty sure if you are old and white, you’re supposed to sacrifice yourself on the COVID-19 altar of stupidity, right? Commit corona-cide in places of commerce. You don’t love your country unless you do." “I mean screw that stupid bitch,” Sarah ignores Tamika. “Why the fuck should I have to risk missing two weeks of work, feeling like shit, and having the possibility of dying all because she can’t stop and put on a fucking mask? I mean goddamn, how fucking selfish do you have to be that you are willing to risk killing people just because you are uncomfortable and lazy? When the hospitals are full because of people like that, and people are dying because they can’t get help … I hope, God, I hope those pricks can’t get a bed.” The phone rings, Mary picks it up. “SuperSafe pickup lane,” Mary answers. “Uuuuhhhh, is this Rapunzel?” a tween voice squeaks. Mary puts the phone call on speaker for Tamika and Sarah. "What do you want, squirrel nuts?" Mary asks. "Oh, Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your tangled pubic hair," then the uncontrollable laughter of the boys, as the women collectively shake their heads. "So, I mayest climb and rescue you from quarantine tower and put an end to your horrible virginity!" The laughing resumes as Mary hangs up. “You see what I gotta put up with?” Mary asks. “You? A virgin?” Sarah yelps with laughter. “Since when?” All three laugh hard. Wednesday 2:35pm Mary returns from lunch miserable; her food tasted like nothing, “But good for the diet,” she thinks. “So, I went to the park last night,” Mary says, holding a mischievous smile. “You should’ve come. I met someone!” “You mean someone squirted you with corona goo last night?” Tamika’s eyebrows lift. “Ew, no! Well, kinda—but that’s nasty!” Mary says playfully. “Can you catch it like that?” she asks, but then continues. “No, I met this guy Adam. He is adorable—well, in a dumb, annoying way.” “Ah, Mary’s men—a collection of the dumbest and most annoying men currently available on the internet,” reflects Tamika. "Quiet you," Mary responds. "Anyway, we met up in the park. Everyone had a few drinks, one thing led to another, and …" Mary's cheeks redden. "He tried to play like he didn't have a rubber, so I ended up using mine." “Yeah, I usually forget my rubbers when I go out with dumb white chicks too … works every time!” says Tamika, but there is a different tone in her voice. "Well, this chick ain't that dumb!" says Mary proudly, and then she looks down to confess. "Well, until later, when Adam went home—and Derrick texted." "Wait, Derrick, who wore a face diaphragm and stayed six feet away from you last week? The one you swore you would never see again, ‘because how am I supposed to get any from six feet away’—that Derrick?” Tamika interrupts. "You have to admit it is a difficult distance to achieve orgasm," Mary returns. "So, I was plastered, and I figured what the hell, let the little pecker come have a drink with us. Then one thing leads to another—and now I don't have a condom." “You didn’t!” Tamika looks horrified. "I mean c 'mon, you know if he is that careful about some over-hyped flu, he's clean down there," Mary says. “Although he was all mucousy and gross because of his allergies.” Tamika’s face is flush. “What, am I embarrassing you?” Mary teases. “No," Tamika states definitively. "I am tired as hell. I had to deal with all your crazy ass customers this morning cuz you can’t be bothered to show up on time, this store is hotter than hell, and I gotta stand here and listen to you tell me how you are tryin’ to go out there and get sick? Has it ever occurred to you that I don’t go out with you because I just don’t want to get sick? Because I don’t want to feel like shit for two weeks? Because I can’t afford to miss work? Because I don’t want the chance of dying? Or because I gotta help my mother at home—ya know, the one with asthma—ya know, the one I don’t want to get sick?” Tamika’s volume increases with every statement. Mary tries to calm her—customers begin to look. "Look, I'm real sorry, T. You know I'm just stupid sometimes." "That's the thing, Mary, you're not," Tamika states emphatically. "You’re a smart person, you just want everyone to think you’re dumb so you don't have to take any responsibility for yourself. This shit isn't hard! You could do this, no problem! You choose not to because you don't want to—and normally I wouldn't give a fuck—but your dumbass is gonna get me sick, and then what?" Tamika's face has turned beet red. "All our co-workers that work with you keep getting sick. Your Mama, sick again today, right? And you banged not one but two strangers last night, and one of them was probably sick? Then you come in here with no mask and stand all close to me? What the fuck, dude?" Tamika stares at Mary, waiting for a response—but there is none. Tamika storms off to the restroom. Mary stands helplessly at the counter; her phone buzzes. Gracie – Eds takin Mama to the hospital! Says you’re in real trouble for taking his car! Mary stops, re-reads the text twice, trying to process it. The phone on the counter begins to ring. Mary listens to the harsh clatter, wanting to ignore it, but she pulls her mask down and picks it up anyway. “SuperSafe pickup lane,” she says in the most emotionally shuttered manner possible. “Rich? Ok, be right out.” It is a man’s voice, but Tiffany’s name is on the order. James is walking straight for her with an angry look on his face. Mary sees him glaring at her, feels the terror shift inside her. “My office now!” James delivers with kept rage. “But, a customer …” Mary tries. “No buts, now!” James says harshly as he storms towards his office. Mary puts her mask back on. As Mary enters, she can hear his phone is calling HR. “Denise, I am going to keep this short today,” James says. “I personally witnessed Mary without a mask at the customer service counter—this after she reported to the customer service desk this morning without a mask. I haven’t even had a chance to call you about it, but it is clear that Mary cannot be trusted to follow company protocol.” "Mary," Denise starts, "at this time, we are going to suspend you pending investigation.” “Actually, let me interject, Denise,” James interrupts. “I am giving Mary one last chance. We will need another final written drawn up. Mary, you will need to sign this one. You will need to wear a mask. Do you understand?” “Yes,” Mary reluctantly responds. Wednesday 6:35pm Mary stares out the window of Ed’s car—reality fades in and out as though it were a mirage. A thought occurs to her, an evil one. She drives over to and parks near James' car. Cautiously she exits—head swiveling like a hawk. Her eyes continue to sweep the area—hhhhch-pt, the lobe of spit and mucus slowly drips onto James’ door handle. She repeats this for the other three, then departs. Wednesday 9:00pm After a long shower, Mary lays down in bed. She is finally left to question how her mother is doing. It comes in waves, her realization, like the torn pieces forming a picture. “She never even goes to the doctor … she’s in the hospital … she smokes ....” Her insides burn as she realizes just how alone she and her sister might become. Ed has not returned. Mary feels the urge to cry trying to break through, and for the first time in a long time, she gives in. Kept sobs give way to convulsive bawling—then her sister is in her bed with her, holding her, crying. “I don’t feel so good,” says Gracie, whining like she does when she is sick. “You’re ok, let’s go to sleep,” says Mary. Somewhere in the middle of the night, Mary awakens. In the bathroom, she remembers the dread. Mary heads to the couch and jumps on social media. Her sadness turns to anger as she begins to type.
It’s funny how the people who “get sick” are the same people we can’t say “are lazy!” I gotta work for a living while they collect unemployment!
She scrolls her feed, then looks at Adam’s profile, notices that he is downtown. She peeks in on her sister—fast asleep. She texts Adam. Mary - You got a fake or something? Adam - Nope, they aren’t carding anymore! You should come! Mary – I wish, can’t leave my sister ☹ Adam – I thought you said she was 8. Just tape a note to call you if she needs anything? Mary hesitates. Mary – Ok, but you gotta come pick me up Thursday9:00am Mary is awakened in a daze, her phone is buzzing like it is ringing, but Tamika is firing one text after another. Tamika – I feel like shit today. Had to call out sick. If this test comes back positive you better not be working there when I get back. – Ashley, Ashely’s mom and sister, Jenny, Jordan, Derrick, Adam, your mom, and me…you got nine people sick so far you fucking piece of shit! And every one of them is going to get more people sick! If someone dies it is on you! – They need to quarantine your ass! Mary doesn’t know how to respond but braces for the inevitable call from James. “I gotta work my day off again? I should just get a job at my cousin’s DQ,” she thinks. Mary tries to clear her mind and ready herself. Finally, she dials the number to the hospital, fear and misery swelling in her raw throat. "I need to stay strong," she quietly reassures herself. An automated attendant answers; Mary begins to navigate the menu of options doing her best to remain patient. “… press 7 for hours of operation and directions to our facility …” the mechanical pronunciation of the words on the third menu pushes Mary over the edge. “Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck you!” Mary screams into the phone. “Just let me talk to my mama!” Her voice fades as she looks at her phone and presses 0 over and over again. Finally, she hangs up and tries again. “Hello?” her mother’s voice struggles to deliver. Mary, surprised to hear her, chokes down the tears, doing her best to suffocate the flood of emotion. "Hi, Mama," she says, trying to smile and be strong. “It’s not a real good time now. I’m not feeling so good,” Mama struggles with each word as they float and slur. Mary wonders how much pain medication she is on. "Mama, it's just…I'm not sure when I'm gonna get to say this to you again …" tears are streaming down Mary's face as she fights to keep composure. The silence grows, "Mama …" she stops. “Is Ed takin’ good care of you?” "Oh, he’s not here," her mother’s voice replies. "I gotta go," and she hears the phone hang up. “Wait, wait, please don’t go. I can’t do this without you. Please don’t go,” Mary begs as tears continue to fall.