Chapter 23—Dan: Not so welcome

May 10, 2020, 2:50 a.m.

Dan: Not so welcome

Fed up with my inability to sleep, I pad down the stairs to turn on the TV. Maybe something on Netflix will distract me so I can get to sleep. 

My conscience is so stricken with guilt I can’t help beating up on myself. Stupid, stupid, stupid. And I can’t even figure out how to atone for my big mouth.

The patter of tiny feet on the oak stairs followed by the thunder of Rex’s big feet, announce the arrival of my nearest and dearest friends.

Monster—the cat’s temporary name—springs into my lap and curls into a ball. Rex looks from the cat to me to the cat to me. I can almost read dismay in his eyes. 

“Don’t worry, boy. This little munchkin will never take your place in my heart.”

Sappy, huh? But it seems to comfort Rex who sighs heavily and climbs up on the couch beside me and lays his big fat paw on both my leg and the cat.

The skinny little kitten shivering under those steps has been transformed into a nice looking cat now that he’s had something to eat, a warm place to sleep and a bath he didn’t want. It was just a quick rub with a wet towel but the little monster flashed his claws, hissed and then took a swat at my face. I’ve got a scratch on my nose that matches my dog’s. What a pair we are.

No, make that, what a trio we are.

I flip through the offerings on Netflix. Everything seems to be chick flicks. “I Married the Prince.” “Great British Baking Show.” “Wuthering Heights.” 

I finally find some sci-fi thing that might turned out to be decent and settle in. Rex is already snoring. His drool runs down my thigh. The cat is out, too. He’s awfully heavy for such a little animal. My leg is asleep but I can’t bear to disrupt these sleeping beauties. 

I reach for the afghan my grandmother crocheted for me when I was a kid and lay it gently over the three of us. 

The show turns out to be all right. I may never binge watch it but for tonight it’s a decent sleeping pill. I’m comfortable enough, and warm enough, to lean my head against the overstuffed cushions of the sofa and close my eyes. Just for a second. 

Are you still there? Netflix asks on the TV screen when I wake up. I’m curled up in a ball on the sofa, all alone. It’s still dark but the light of a new day is filtering through my windows.

My head aches and my face feels hot. That’s what I get for sleeping on the couch. By now I should know better but it’s becoming a more common occurrence. 

As I flick off the TV, I realize it’s Sunday. Not only that, it’s Mother Day. I’ve never not been with my mother on Mother’s Day. Even in college, I drove up for the weekend. 

I should be in Jersey, taking flowers and a Whitman’s Sampler to my mother but a phone call this afternoon will have to suffice. Their lock down is even more serious than ours. 

My mother, a Saturday-is-supermarket-shopping-day kind of mother, has even resorted to having groceries delivered. And Friday is no longer dinner-out night. 

It hasn’t stopped Dad who still goes to an empty office every day. Can’t catch the virus when there’s nobody to catch it from, he reasons. He drives, takes his own K-cups and cream for his morning break, and stores peanut butter and rolls in his desk drawer for lunch. 

To tell the truth, that sounds worse than being cooped up at my little  house with a big, rambunctious dog. It’s still too soon to know what to think about the cat. 

I rise from my cocoon and put my feet on the sticky floor. It’s really sticky. I grimace as I try to remember what happened here and what is now on the sole of my foot. 

A paper cup of soda left last night on the coffee table has been overturned. When I realize it, I’m suddenly fully awake, holding my breath as I check my computer. Last thing I remember, I left it on and open.

I’m in trouble. That sticky stuff is all over it. Brown goo has pooled between the A and the S and all around the return key. When I type, the A, or rather the aaaaaaaaaaa, taunts me for being a stupid boy. Never leave root beer and a keyboard near each other when there’s a cat in the house. 

I jump up and look for my phone. If my computer is toast, what do I do next? First I text Mike, the IT guy at the newspaper. It’s only five in the morning so I know I won’t hear from him for a while. 

So I type in my favorite search engine…“hacks to save computer after soda spilled on keyboard” … and there are solutions. Oh yes, let it dry wait a day and then—

Oh hell… “Of course, none of this applies to a laptop keyboard. If you spill liquid in a laptop keyboard, you got liquid in the whole dang thing. Off to the laptop repair shop or laptop replacement store you go!”

Except during a pandemic lockdown when everything but the hospitals is closed. 

OK. Plan B. I didn’t expect to have to replace my two-year-old laptop but this is an emergency. I go to all the usual sites and look for something cheap enough that my credit card company won’t reject it.

Sold out

Sold out

Sold out

Okay then, I look for something expensive. Credit card be damned. What’s a little debt during a pandemic anyway?

Sold out

Sold out

Sold out

Or for variety, Out of stock

There’s also this little note, or one like it, on every single website— Due to extra precautions in our warehouse, limited staffing and disruptions in our supply chain, shipping times may be longer than expected.

I take my dearly beloved Dell to the kitchen to see if it is indeed dead. Maybe with some careful cleaning I can save it. What choice do I have?

Swinging open the kitchen door, I’m greeted with two sets of very guilty faces. Who says animals can’t express emotions on their faces? 

They should see these two scoundrels. Rex is filthy, covered in God-knows-what. Garbage is strewn all over the floor. The clean dishes left on the counter are now piled into the sink and tossed on top of the garbage. I’m lucky that only one glass, my favorite souvenir pint glass from a nearby craft brewery, lies in glittering shards. 

And Monster? He’s on top of the refrigerator, perched like the king of the jungle, though his eyes, wide and bright, don’t fool me. This is his doing, not Rex’s. My dumb dog learned a long time ago to stay out of the kitchen, especially the garbage can. 

What a start to the day. I put the laptop on the dining room table and scope out the damage. Mostly I’m mad that I didn’t think of securing the garbage so it wouldn’t tempt the new guy in the house.  

“Out!” I stare at Rex who looks up at me with sorrow in his big brown eyes. He doesn’t move at first but I don’t budge. Finally, he sighs so dramatically, looks up at me with a pathetic wag of his tail—no, that won’t work right now, boy—and slinks out of the room. I wade through the pizza boxes, aluminum foil balls and and slimy shreds of what was once my dinner to get to the cat who has backed up behind my stash of cereal boxes, cake pans, cookies and liquor bottles. I carefully move the liquor bottles first.

“Come on, you monster.” When I reach up, I’m greeted with a slash across my knuckles. I’m beginning to wonder why I rescued this creature. 

I pull my hand away and wipe off the tiny blood droplets. Not willing to try that again, I grab the blue and white check oven mitts my mother hung on the side of the fridge when I moved in—never been used before. Now protected, I reach with both hands and the little critter leaps down onto the counter, slides on a dish which crashes to the floor, and races across the garbage and through the propped-open door. 

I throw the useless mitts on the counter and race after him. But only into the dining room when I see my laptop and remember what I went into the kitchen for in the first place. 

Still steaming, I wade back across the narrow, trashed floor of my kitchen to the sink for a sponge, a towel and a bottle of Windex, the only cleaner I keep in the house. 

Pulling up a chair to the dining room table, I hunker down to see if this computer can be saved. The brown goo is so thick around A it oozes around S when I press the key. When I hit S, it oozes out of D.

There doesn’t seem to be any way to open the laptop and clean the keyboard and you know what’s under the keyboard. The rest of the computer. I let fly a string of words I would never normally say on Mother’s Day—especially if my mother was here. 

Why did I let that creature in my house?

What do I do now?

And why is the room spinning?


May 10, 2020, 8:50 a.m.

Jessica: Happy Mother’s Day

“However” is not my favorite word today. I spent all day Friday working on that damn story. When I wasn’t encouraging Lori to finish her assignment. The day was so pretty, she begged me to go to the park or at the very least to let her go visit her friends across the alley. I hated saying no. 

It’s getting harder every day to keep her inside. I keep wondering what I’ll do when school dismisses and she’s got nothing to do all day long. 

I made the mistake of checking my email when I got up this morning. I had to. I needed the link for Zoom church. 

That came right after two emails from work.

Mr. Okun sent the first to the whole newsroom staff at six o’clock this morning. It was news none of us wanted to hear, I’m sure. We aren’t going back to the office until October.

October. I counted the months on my fingers. Five months. We’ll be working like this for half a year before I ever set foot in the real, actual newsroom. 

By then, he wrote, we hope we’ll have adequate guidelines in place to ensure the staff’s well-being and good health. 

By then, I thought, the pandemic was supposed to be over. It was supposed to last a month, maybe two. We’re about to begin our third month of self-quarantine. 

I took a deep breath, afraid I might just panic at the idea of continuing this way for so long, before continuing the letter.

I want to congratulate the staff on a job well done in spite of the current crisis. Kudos to Jessica Sands. 

I stop reading when I see my name. My name! Then I quickly read on and learn he’s praising me for two stories I wrote last week on victims of the pandemic. Including one I turned in Friday for today’s paper. A school teacher who was caring for aging parents. I quoted her mother saying her daughter apologized to them for not protecting them as she should have. Even on FaceTime, the mother’s tears shone in her eyes.

Mr. Okun continues with praise for nearly everyone on the staff. Rashima’s restaurant stories, of course, and Dan’s constant updates of the Covid-19 cases. 

I stare at Dan’s name a little too long. I miss him. I can’t forgive him but I miss him. I liked bouncing ideas off him, the hard questions he asked when he looked over her early stories. It could be uncomfortable but it helped. I’ve got a better sense of what to ask and how to write than I had three months ago. I feel like I lost a dear friend.

Shaking away my tender emotions, emotions that will only get me in more trouble, I click on Claire’s email.

A good story, Claire wrote about the same Friday assignment. However…

Oh shit. Have I mentioned how I hate the word “however?”

She goes on to criticize my story paragraph by paragraph. It ends with one final, painful shot. As your three-month probation comes to an end, I feel you are providing an acceptable, if not exemplary, quality of work. I expect great improvement by the time employee evaluations are scheduled in September.

I lean my face in my cold hands and close my eyes. Claire’s words echo through my brain, further bruising my wounded ego.

Why couldn’t she stop at A good story?

Lori pads down the stairs, both of her feet tapping each step as she rushes down to the living room. I straighten up, run my hands through my hair and paste on a smile before my little girl sees the distress in my face.

“Morning, Lori Beth.”

She throws herself into my arms, crumpling the paper she’s carrying. “Happy Mother’s Day, Mommy.”

“Thank you, sweetheart.”

She plants a big wet kiss on my cheek and then, after settling in my lap, hands me the sheet of paper. In her finest crayon, she’s sketched line drawings of me and herself, dressed in matching orange triangles and swirls of brown curls on our heads. In alternating colors of blue and green, she’s carefully written Happy Moter’s Day on the top and her name on the bottom. 

Of course, I ignore the misspelling as I ooh and aah over her artwork.

“Mrs. Gambino told us to make something special for our mommies. I drew us in the dresses we wore at Christmas. Remember, Mommy?”

I remember Lori’s red velvet dress and my burnt orange corduroys. I guess she thought we matched that day. 

“It’s beautiful.” Lori’s shining eyes and sweet smile erase the pain from a moment ago. Fitting for Mother’s Day, don’t you think?

“I made one for Nana, too.” She hands me a second sheet covered in hearts. “I didn’t want to draw more people. Do you think she’ll like the hearts?”

“I know she will. How about we call her right after we watch the priest on TV. It’s about to start.”

“We can’t go visit today?” Lori’s brows furrow with disappointment. 

I wipe the hair out of her face as I shake my head. “Not yet. Nana needs to stay by herself a little while longer. Just her and Pop. I’m sure we’ll be able to see them soon.”

I hope so but, recalling Mr. Okun’s note, I’m not so sure. We think we’re virus free but how can we know? There are no tests available. It turns out some people are carrying the virus without having symptoms and my sick mother can’t the chance we could infect her. 

I click on the TV and connect the YouTube channel. This is the only part of the pandemic I like so far: Going to church while still in my PJs with a cup of coffee and my daughter by my side. 

My thoughts wander from the Scriptures and the prayers, though. I don’t like being “acceptable.” I’ve worked so hard. I’ve figured out how to keep Lori happy—most of the time—while I make dozens of calls and write hundreds of words every day. I’ve managed to keep the bathroom semi-clean, the dishes washed and Lori dressed in freshly-laundered leotards. I’ve officiated at my best friend’s wedding and kept tabs on my parents. 

How is that being “acceptable?” I think we all deserve a prize for what we’ve done since mid-March.

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