5:30 AM, and Linda’s alarm clock went off, sounding, as always, like it was shrieking in agony. Linda groaned, waving vaguely in the direction of the noise. The alarm clock shrieked persistently.
Linda rolled out of bed and stumbled to the closet to change, her mind a fog. She was clattering down the cold cement stairs ten minutes later, hastily wrapped in a rumpled coat and hat that clashed with each other.
When she reached the lobby the sight of the masked doorman, Carlos, reminded her to run back up and get her mask. Out on the street she remembered that she should be working from home.
Linda slogged back up the stairs and crashed through the door of her flat, dropping coat, hat, and purse in her beeline to the bed, where she flopped on her face and vowed eternal revenge on the alarm clock. Again.
Half an hour later she dragged herself off the bed again and stumbled into the kitchen with a vague idea of getting herself breakfast and having, as her mother had termed it, “a slow morning.” A slow morning, as Linda’s mother made it, consisted of a breakfast for two - eggs and bacon with coffee. These would be eaten out in the morning air on a patio or balcony, accompanied by the clever conversation of one’s spouse, while chocolate scones baked in the oven, perfectly timed to come out as the eggs and bacon were finished. It was a spectacular effort her mother made for her father on special occasions, while Linda and her siblings sat in the kitchen and ate cold cereal. Linda had covetous memories of those slow mornings. Especially the chocolate scones, which the children had been told time and time again that “they would not like.”
Linda made the coffee first, to assist her in any further decisions. She then dragged a folding chair out to her tiny metal balcony. It only stuck out half a foot - just for show, really. She left the screen door open and set the chair half inside and half on the balcony and then perched on it precariously, sipped her coffee in a china tea cup from a set she’d found in her childhood things. She couldn’t find any other cups that seemed coffee-worthy.
The wall of the apartment building next door was dusty brick, more black and gray than red. She wondered, idly, how it had gotten so dirty, since the alley between the two buildings was only about five feet, and no cars ever came down it. The balconies of both buildings were barely a yard apart and the ground was so cluttered with trash cans it was almost too narrow for a dog to get through. As she leaned over and peered down at the bottom, a dog did try to get through. A brown dog with matted fur slunk in at the far end of the alley and began making its way through to the other side, squeezing between the trash that covered the ground. Halfway through the alley the dog got stuck between the side of the other building, some old boards, and an old dumpster that had fallen over. It thrust forward until it was even more permanently lodged between the dumpster and the wall, and then when it finally tried to back out, its way was blocked by the boards it had wiggled under. The dog began to scratch at the ground and bark. Linda leaned out further to see what would happen.
“Roll over onto your belly!” called a voice. She looked up in surprise to see the man whose balcony was across from hers also leaning out, holding to his door frame to keep from falling over his balcony railing. The dog stopped struggling and looked up. “Roll over,” said the man, making the gesture with his hand that Linda had seen people use to teach their dogs that trick. The mutt on the alley floor looked up in confusion.
“Roll over and wiggle out,” explained the man, leaning on his railing. “You can’t get out if you keep struggling like that. You’re just pushing the boards down farther, blocking your escape route. Relax, and then roll over.” He made the motion again. “Roll over!” The dog growled and went back to its struggling. The man sighed and frowned, seeming disappointed that it had ignored his instructions.
“Did you think it would listen to you?” asked Linda, slightly bemused.
“Well, I mean…” he shrugged. “I guess I thought why wouldn’t it? Most dogs do.” Below, the dog started yapping again. He frowned, looking over the railing. “I think I’d better get down there and move the boards or something. The silly thing is just going to keep trying to go forward.
“You don’t think it will bite you?” she asked. “It doesn’t look…exactly…healthy.”
He scanned the alley “Maybe I can get at the boards from the back. It’ll probably keep running forward after that.”
She shook her head. Linda did not get along with most dogs. She had been bitten when she was little.
The dog started scrabbling at the ground again, trying to get free by sheer brute force. He shook his head, smiling. “Stupid thing. I’m going to go-“ The dog suddenly kicked with its back legs, toppling the boards with a crash, and shot out of the crack down the alley. Linda yelped, spilling her coffee and the man jumped and nearly fell over the railing. He started laughing as the dog zipped around the corner. “Well, look at that! Like a cork out of a bottle.”
“Like a cork out of a bottle,” she agreed, standing and ruefully examining her jeans. “Getting liquid everywhere.”
“Nice teacup,” he remarked. “Tea on the balcony is a nice idea.”
“It’s actually coffee,” she explained, sitting back down. “I don’t have any coffee cups, I guess because I’m not usually at home. But I’m trying to copy my mother. She always said that a slow coffee and breakfast outside in the morning was one of life’s great pleasures. I figured since I’m going to be home anyway, I might as well try it.”
“Sounds like a great idea,” he said, leaning forward again. “I’m finding all these new things to do now that I’m actually at home all the time.”
“I know, I have so much spare time now! So I’m trying to put it to good use. Technically it’s supposed to be a grand meal of eggs, bacon, scones, and coffee. I’ve only gotten as far as the coffee.”
“I’m Tyler,” he said suddenly, reaching his hand across the alley.
“Linda,” she responded, smiling. She tried to shake his hand, but they couldn’t quite reach.
“Ha, too narrow for a dog to get through but not narrow enough to shake across,” he laughed.
“Well, we probably shouldn’t be shaking hands anyway, with social distancing and all.”
“True,” he noted, smiling. “So what are your plans for this stay-at-home order? Get copious amounts of work done to get a raise? Or stay up late and party?”
“Probably just sleep in and then attempt a slow breakfast every morning. And maybe just ignore work.”
“Well, good luck on the breakfast thing. I think I’m going to give it a try too.”
She smiled. “Well then, I’ll see you in a minute.”
Linda made some more coffee. She found a box of Sara Lee cake in the freezer to sub for the scones, but the refrigerator was sadly empty of both eggs and bacon.
When she emerged onto her balcony again Tyler was already on his, holding a bag of jerky and a beer glass full of coffee. He saluted her with it as she came out.
“Couldn’t find any coffee cups either,” he grinned.
“I never knew my apartment was so empty of stuff!” she exclaimed as she sat down. “It always seemed so cluttered before. But it turns out I have practically nothing edible in stock.”
He shook his head. “I’m embarrassed that all I have to eat are coffee grounds, trail mix, and jerky.”
“Well at least you have some protein. I found some Sara Lee cakes for the scones, but no bacon or eggs.”
He held up the bag. “Trade me a Sara Lee for a piece of jerky?”
“One whole Sara Lee for one tiny piece of jerky? Sounds like I’m getting the short end of the stick here.”
He sighed. “Fine, two pieces.”
“Two tiny pieces of jerky for one whole-“
“I’m not going higher than two!” he proclaimed.
“Five,” she said, crossing her arms.
“Five whole pieces of jerky for one Sara Lee cake?”
“Maybe one and a half cakes. Five pieces for one and a half cakes.”
He considered. “Deal. I’d shake, but I can’t reach you.”
“Oops,” said Linda. “How are we going to get them across?”
He smiled confidently. “You, miss Linda, are dealing with a basketball champ.” He tossed the bag of jerky across the alley right into her lap. “Now only five pieces, remember? Now throw me the cakes.” Linda stood up, looking down at the bottom of the alley.
“I think this is a bad idea.”
“Just throw it.”
She wavered. “What if I drop it into the alley?”
He waved his hand dismissively. “Don’t drop it into the alley. Come on, I’ll catch it.”
Linda threw it as hard as she could, smashing him in the face with the box.
“Sorry!” She clapped her hands over her mouth. Tyler rubbed his eye. “See? You didn’t drop it in the alley. I’m taking two cakes for that, by the way.”
“No!” she protested. “We agreed to one and a half!”
“That was before you hit me in the eye,” he said accusingly, opening the box.
“Then I’m taking another stick of jerky.”
“Fine,” he shrugged. “The Sara Lee cakes are better anyway. I never liked jalapeno jerky that much.”
The next day the dog was back. Linda heard a scuffling in the alley and leaned out to see it stuck in the same place as before, thrashing and attempting the pop out again.
“Cork is back,” remarked Tyler from his balcony. “Looks like he wants to prove to us that the other escape was skill, not luck. Also, I got eggs.”
She turned to him. “What?”
“My mom came by with groceries, knowing that I was probably living on coffee grounds, jerky, and trail mix. Do you want one?”
“Do I have to catch it?”
He grinned and ducked back into his apartment, then came back out and casually tossed an egg to her, which she scrambled to catch.
“Don’t. Ever. Do. That. Again.” she whispered, cradling the egg in her hands.
Below, Cork popped free and streaked triumphantly down the alley.
Tyler grinned at her. “See you in a minute.”