The old man is long-winded. That’s why I don’t ask him anything.
Sure, I guess it was my fault. But in my defense the assignment was boring. Write about World War II. What did I know about something that happened seventy years ago and why did I care? So yeah, I kept putting it off. Until Mom found out and freaked out. I told her I didn’t know what to write.
“Oh my God, James,” she said. “Why don’t you ask your grandfather for help? He was alive at that time. Or ask anyone, you crazy child?”
Like she’s one to talk. The woman wouldn’t ask for help fixing anything if the roof was caving in. Then she gets mad and starts swearing. It’s like she dishonors her ancestors or something if she can’t fix a leaking faucet or beat a final boss in Gods of War. But I’m the stubborn one. Whatever. I was about to point that out when my brother Michael told me to shut up and do what I was told. He was studying for finals and we were loud. So, I emailed Grandpa because I’m not calling. I didn’t care how late the assignment was. I was only in my freshman year so I had plenty of time to get the grades for a college scholarship. Far as I was concerned, Mom could get over it. Grandpa wrote back. It was long and I wouldn’t have read all of it but Mom made me. He said three things I still remember. First, his father was considered a hostile alien. It made me think of Star Wars, which would’ve been cool. But all it meant was my great-great-grandfather was Italian and so had to report to immigration.
“As least he wasn’t interred, like the Japanese,” Mom said.
Secondly, Grandpa, at six years old, knew the Mussolini salute. He performed it to the Italian neighbors, who were amused. He said immigration would not have been if they found out. The third thing he described was the ration books and how they worked. After we read all this, I shook my head.
“That’s the problem with asking Grandpa,” I said. “The man overloads so much information-”
Michael had been getting himself a soda. He slammed the refrigerator door. “Who cares, idiot,” he said. “He didn’t have to help you. Now do your damned paper so Mom stops yelling, for God’s sake”
This was in 2017. At the end of the year, my father had a heart attack and died. My parents had been divorced for long as I remember. We only saw him every other weekend, so it didn’t change my life a lot. We cleaned out his apartment and took the turtles he had bought for us.
I suppose I’m sad he’s gone.
In 2018 Michael went to a state university in Jacksonville, Fl. It's about three hours from where we lived in Port Saint Lucie. Mom bitched about Trump and followed politics far too much for her blood pressure. Still, the country seemed all right. And she had promised me if I did my work she'd stop checking my grades online. For the most part, she did. I took another history course and learned about the Spanish flu. Just something in a textbook, I thought. Like WWII. Over and done with.
Until one day it kinda became real.
In April 2020, I left school for spring break and didn’t go back. Instead, I had a school computer if you could call it that. The stupid thing barely connected to the internet, so I did assignments on my smartphone. We were also doing scout meetings on Zoom. So we can keep some routine, the adults said. Right. That’s going to work really well.
Seriously, do you know how hard it is to get eleven-year-olds to be quiet in a regular meeting? Never mind mute their damned microphones on Zoom. But looking back I guess the adults tried. They said it was for us. I think they did it for themselves too. Now that's funny, isn't it? We might all die, but by God, we’ll hold our usual meetings anyway. Maybe that’s what old people think. If you follow your routines nothing bad can happen to you.
Mom went to work as usual. It’s hard to fit a brace or prosthesis when your patient is on a screen. Back then masks were hard to find, and her N95 was looking pretty ratty. But she had a plan, or so she said. First, she borrowed one of the masks I had bought at the county fair and didn’t use anymore. It was for cosplay, not the pandemic, but she said it would do. It was made of black cloth, but across the front was a plastic piece. This covered your nose and mouth. On that were different decorations. Some were skeletal or had lion’s jaws, depending on what anime character you wanted to look like. Mine had a rainbow pattern. It also had tiny breathing holes, but Mom put a coffee filter in it.
“It even lights up,” she said.
"Yeah," I answered. "The lights work off your voice. So the more you talk the better."
“Cool. The kids will love it.”
What was really weird? The garlic.
It all started when Mom told her boss she couldn’t find the stuff at Publix. Apparently, he pulled a clove out of his pocket and handed it to her. “I have more,” he said, “from Sam’s Club. If you need it.” So she carried it in her pocket for a few days. Finally, I asked why.
“Are you going to cook spaghetti at work or what?”
Mom laughed. “No, it’s an old Italian superstition.”
“You got vampires coming in?” Knowing my mother’s patients, I wouldn’t doubt it. She always said losing a limb or being paralyzed from a stroke might make anyone insane. All I heard were her stories.
“It wards off the evil eye,” she answered.
I thought it was a pretty sad spirit that was scared of a root vegetable, but I didn’t say that. I knew better. Most likely, the garlic would make her smell, and people would stay away. As for me, I only wore masks when Mom or Michael reminded me to. Because only the elderly and those in ill health got really sick. Mom was up there, but didn't even get a senior citizen discount. So we were fine.
"Now, about your birthday,” Mom said.
April 18th was that coming Saturday, not that I really cared. I'd be seventeen, but so what? My buddy Craig wouldn't come over. Her mother was worse than mine about the virus. “What about it?”
“We got to get Michael that weekend,” she answered. “They’re closing the dorms due to Covid. He has to leave or they drag him out by his feet.”
I assumed she was joking. “Okay.”
“We’ll figure out something for your birthday,” Mom added.
“At least he can leave the refrigerator,” she said. “Thank God. It won’t fit in the car.”
That car just about fit the three of us. It was an ugly gray Ford. Michael used to joke that I couldn’t drive it. “It’s a Focus,” he said. “And you have ADHD.”
Most days I couldn’t decide if I missed him or if I wanted to drive up to Jacksonville and kill him. Probably it was both those things. Mom asked if I wanted to go or stay home. "I'm just going up and back."
“What else do I have to do?” And it was true. Video games only get you so far, even if Mom said I was addicted. I probably was. They had closed down the beaches for God’s sake. How did that make sense? Everyone went to Walmart for entertainment. There they were, buying cake flour because they were desperate for something to do. No one was six feet apart; it was impossible. But yet the beaches were dangerous. At least the kayak rental at the boat ramp was open. Sometimes Mom and I would paddle out to the spoil islands in the lagoon. There we could swim a bit. Or we’d hike at the state park. But even that gets old after a while. So Mom cleaned out her car’s trunk and we took off.
Adults don’t want you to know this. But they don’t know what the hell they’re doing.
It was all so crazy. Meeting on Zoom so we wouldn’t go crazy in isolation. If we went to school remotely, it would all be cool. We might get Covid, who knows. But we weren’t going to get the bad one. We wouldn’t be the lifers, as they were called. Or die. Mom already knew someone who lost a sister. She said she and a group of friends drove past the woman’s house. Fifteen cars with people waving to a crying woman on a porch.
Everyone was going insane.
The dorm was silent and empty. The only sign of life, if you’d call it that, was the student at the front desk. He pulled up his mask and told us to put ours on or perish.
I’m joking about the last part. But we got the point. So, I put on my black mask I’d gotten from Amazon and looked around. We'd come in through big glass doors. The walls were beige, the floor off-white tile. To the left was the small grocery store and deli. To the right was the game room. In it were armchairs and a pool table they probably got from the Salvation Army. Both rooms were locked, the lights off. Although it was sunny outside, the whole place seemed kind of dark. Even the outdoor swimming pool seemed...like the water was bad or something. Like one of those old abandoned wards you see in pictures. We heard the elevator doors open, then Michael appeared. His dark hair was tied up into a ratty man bun. He wore shorts, a One Piece T-shirt, and a mask that said I’m a beacon of Joy.
Right. Michael looked like he had just woken up, never mind a beacon of anything. Not that I was any better. My hair is curly like my mother’s. If I brush it, then it frizzes. Mom always wants me to shave, but what for? It was Michael, not a girlfriend or something. Like he cared. Mom dramatically ran up and hugged my brother like she hadn’t seen him in ten years. She thinks it’s funny. Michael rolled his eyes, gently let her go, and walked up to me. “Happy birthday,” he said. “Loser.”
“Yeah, at least I’m not cringe,” I answered. “Like you.”
Michael aimed a punch at my stomach. I dodged and smacked him in the shoulder. Then I used my special weapon. I wrapped myself around his body, pinning his arms. He twisted, trying to free himself. Mom laughed as we wrestled in the hallway.
“I can see you two missed each other,” Mom said. “It’s touching.” She wiped away a non-existent tear.
“Let me go, moron,” Michael said, his voice loud in that silent space. “They want me out of here by three. And it’s one thirty now.”
I let go and he pulled his shirt down. I noted I was now an inch taller than him. Maybe it was because I had shoes on and he wore flip-flops. But I’d take it. We rode the elevator to the fifth floor and started down the hallway. Of course, they had to assign Michael the last bloody room. He was in a pod with three bedrooms surrounding a kitchenette with two bathrooms. The bedroom is tiny. It’s just big enough for two beds, two desks, and two closets. Barely. I could see why they wanted everyone out of the dorms. Everything was so close if you farted your roommate would instantly know. Michael loaded me up with his laptop and microwave, while Mom grabbed his overstuffed duffel bag. On the way to the car, it occurred to me that I’d done this one too many times. At least twice a year he moved home and back out. It was really getting old.
You decided to come.
He still owes me a good birthday present, I answered myself.
Agreed. Thank God we have Amazon. Or I might not be getting anything.
It took us three trips to get everything down, and a miracle we got it into the car. I would have to sit on Michael’s blanket with my feet on his microwave. But it could be worse. I could be riding on the roof. Mom told Michael he could drive, the price for being picked up. And he had to buy us dinner. My brother checked his mailbox a final time and we headed out.
My birthday dinner was in a parking lot across from Town Center in Jacksonville. We ate at Tijuana Flats, which is a step up or two from Taco Bell. Or, as Mom calls it, Taco Hell. Usually, they have a hot sauce bar which I really like, but the dining room was closed. I could get a sample of Kick my Butt and call me Sally sauce. Not as hot as I’d like but better than nothing. We called in the order, and the waitress brought the bag to us. Having no other place to go we sat in the car. Or rather Michael and I did. Mom sat on the curb, trying to eat tacos. She brushed lettuce off her lap, sour cream off her shirt, and set her plate on the ground. Then she spoke to me, but her eyes were on the cars going by. I will say we had a great view of some apartments behind us. In front, a six-lane road. No one else was around.
“Happy birthday, James,” Mom said. “Such as it is.”
“Tastes good to me,” I answered. Actually, my burrito could’ve been hotter. But the cooks were probably doing the best they could. Just like everyone else.
“Here,” Michael said, handing me a card. I opened it. It was unsigned, but that didn’t matter. Inside was a PlayStation gift card.
“Oh cool,” I told him. "There's a couple of new games I want. Thanks."
Mom had already given me my gift, a Twenty-One Pilots record. I like old things, and last Christmas I’d gotten a phonograph. She had said I probably was the only kid that didn’t want a digital download, although I had that too. I was about to tell her thanks again for that when she screamed and jumped up.
“Fire ants!” she shouted. “Damn it!” She brushed at her legs, hopping around and cursing. Next her shoes came off. Mom hit them against the car as if knocking out armies of ants. She shook out her socks. By this time, she was red-faced and out of breath. Then she leaned her forehead against the car and her body started to shake.
“What are you doing?” Michael asked, getting out of the car. But he didn’t touch Mom. In fact, he backed up. For a moment, I thought he’d run away. But Mom wasn’t crying. She was laughing.
“Did you take your schizophrenia medication today?” Michael asked her. It’s actually for her blood pressure. We just call it that as a joke. But in that moment, I wondered if she needed the psych meds. This seemed too close to tears for me.
“The family that eats...in a parking lot...stays together,” Mom said, still laughing. “And no. When I get home.” She wiped her eyes with her shirt while Michael picked up the plates. “Someday,” she said, “you’re going to tell your kids about this.”
“Why?” I said.
“To flex on them,” Mom said. “They’ll complain about some first-world problem like school. And you can tell them how you lived through a pandemic.”
“Mom,” I said, “it’s just eating food in a parking lot. It’s not like no one ever did this before.” But I thought of Grandpa, writing about his life. Trying to tell me what it was like. He thought I’d be interested. For a moment, I wondered if I should’ve listened better. Then Mom picked up her cup and looked inside.
“I don’t think the ants got in here,” she said. “Maybe I’d better throw it out though.” She rubbed her ankles. "I don't think I got bit too bad. Itches though."
“To be honest,” Michael said, “I don’t think our kids will care. It’s not like we’re fighting some war enemy or something. Now,” and here he opened Mom’s car door. “Let’s go home.”