By Jan Worth-Nelson
Not surprisingly these days, I’d had a restless night’s sleep. Sometime in the darkest time before dawn, my mind started obsessing on two things: bread and milk.
Bread and milk, bread and milk. We have to get some bread and milk, my mind said, badgering me repeatedly, an urgency just shy of panicked. We can’t run out of bread and milk.
I’ve got a really great comforter my niece sent us last year — a faux fur blanket so soft it is almost as good as a chip of Xanax for soothing away my fears. I pulled it up around my neck and nestled further down in bed, cleaving gratefully to my husband’s warm body, angling for a couple more hours of sleep.
But no. Milk and bread, bread and milk.
As inky 5 a.m. turned to slate gray 6 and finally, milky dawn around 7, I visualized getting up and running into Aldi’s before all the bread and milk was gone.
I saw myself putting on a mask, pulling out a disinfecting wipe for the push bar of the cart and wiping it down; I saw myself being careful not to touch the automatic door, using the disinfecting wipe to open the door to the milk cooler, making sure to pick up the bread with the disinfecting wipe.
And then going through the line – pulling out my little bottle of sanitizer, and using it on my hands before and after getting my change, swiping the cash with the sanitizer, using the disinfecting wipe on the gallon of milk, carting it back to the car and getting home with the booty, beginning the disinfecting all over again.
Not to mention yes, yes, washing my hands: assiduously lathering, making sure to scrub between the fingers, the thumbs, the nails, the wrists – a new, serious, conscientious kind of hand washing unlike my usual perfunctory approach…Now we know it can’t be lackadaisical and absent minded—it has to be conscious, timed out to “Happy Birthday,” foamy and earnest. It must be, as a friend puts it “flawlessly executed.” Washing our hands with appropriate propriety and epidemiological altruism is what we do these days, along with the deliberate, safe six feet we keep between us…
Bear in mind that in this part of my narrative I am still in bed.
By now, like everybody else, I know the drill. I can see it step by step: A new rhythm, a new practice we adopt out of fear and collective responsibility. And it’s sort of exhausting—and stressful.
So, I consider staying in bed. Just staying in bed, curled up next to Ted, until it’s over.
“Over…” at this point, is hard to imagine—with its own anxieties, like what it must feel like to get out of the insane asylum: will I be able to handle it? Will it ever feel safe… The strangeness of a free world, prickling the skin, the brain’s management capacities pinging with wary adrenaline.
It’s a nerve-wracking dream we’re all walking around in.
The concert I wanted to go to — cancelled. The coffee shop I like to linger in, which named a sandwich for me, shuttered. All the tables moved out of the Farmers’ Market, the floor shocking like a shaved head. The restaurant I go to because I like their comfortable booths – take-out only. The late night talk show that has saved many of my bad days with its cathartic hilarities, gone gone gone.
Really, why should I get out of bed? For what earthly reason should I straggle out into this chaos, stripped of so much shareable grace?
Well, bread and milk.
And then the lady in the check-out line at Home Depot.
And then the cello on the back porch.
Stay with me now.
My trip to Aldi’s played out almost exactly as I imagined it. I got the bread and milk.
MiracleGro, and Jesus is good
After that, in violation of the “executive order,” the creepy bureaucratic language of our surreal new life, I snuck into Home Depot. I craved a big fat bag of potting soil. Miracle Gro, to be exact.
I wanted a big fat bag of Miracle Gro for my garage…just in case. Just in case my flagging life force turned to filling pots with that pliable black dirt and sprinkling in seeds from packets I never opened last year, rediscovered at the back of the junk drawer: sweet pea, phlox. A packet labeled “Burpee’s Bee Garden” from a joyous conference last year at the Food Bank—back when we could all get together.
Completely alone in the garden section, usually busy this time of year, I was in a sci-fi movie and I was the only human left. Spooked, I wrestled my Miracle Gro into the cart and rushed to check out.
But at the check out line, ahead of me another human appeared. Older than me, she wore a heavy coat, elaborate fur hat. Incongruously, a huge smile. I didn’t see what she had bought – it was in a small plastic bag.
I respectfully stayed behind the yellow X taped on the Home Depot floor, marking my safe six feet. The young clerk’s mask didn’t hide uneasy eyes and furrowed brow.
But the old woman was happy.
“Sister,” she said, turning to me, “Do you know how great God is? Do you know how much Jesus loves you? It’s a wonderful thing, just wonderful how great God is…”
Even from our six feet apart, at first the clerk and I both cringed back a couple of inches. Was this going to be a crazy one in the off-kilter sci-fi scene?
“Sister!,” she exuded, smiling at both me–a crabby old skeptic with limited tolerance for public ecstasy–and the apple-cheeked clerk. “Sisters, God is good, God is just wonderful!”
You all know me. I’m so lapsed my late mother told St. Peter just to re-assign my angel to somebody else. But this day, as long as the exuberant woman in a magnificent hat kept to her six feet and didn’t try to hug me, I smiled back. I liked the way she called me “sister.”
“I’m so glad Jesus makes you happy—I’m very happy for you,” I said. On this of all days, I wanted to be kind. And she was touting love.
So, l’chaim. She left through the sliding door and I gave her some berth, before trundling out with my Miracle Gro.
And then, the cello.
Back home, I was exhausted from the brief outing, relieved to be inside like an escaped rabbit shuffling voluntarily back into its cage.
I knocked on the window glass when my friend Tyler walked by; I opened the front door and shouted out greetings through the screen: Tyler, Tyler! How are you?
There’s somebody really sick in his house—not COVID-19. “The only visitor we’re getting is the Grim Reaper,” Tyler said. His dog Olive strained at a virus-free leash, eager for Gilkey Creek.
We both heard the music, but the dog pulled Tyler on. I circled around outside to the house next door. In russet afternoon sunset light, Ben Flood was on the back porch playing his cello.
I stood far enough away in the still-stiff grass of early spring. Ben paused and said his two housemates were gone, staying with their parents. He’d been working alone, from home.
“And this is all I have,” he said, cradling the cello. We covered the territory: do you have enough food? Enough water? Yes. But not enough music. When he went back to it, leaning over the beautiful body, the cello vibrated deeply, hauntingly over the yard, into the air, into my heart, onto Maxine Street, and back into houses where everybody’s camped out behind closed doors. I tell you, Ben’s heart-rending cello transcended all the scary bullshit. I admit it: I cried. I cried for all that we are losing and for all the sweetness and hunger for each other that remains.
And then I retreated back into my own house, where I knew there’d be a faux fur blanket and my husband to cleave to. And where I have milk and bread. I don’t know how long this fearful strangeness is going to last, or how bad it’s going to get. That’s perhaps why it matters to remember one day, and then another, and then another, if we’re lucky, where there is still bread and milk and music and love.
EVM Editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at email@example.com.