Unmasking the Virus: A Retail Diary of the Plague Years (Volume 5)

July 5, 2020

Last week, Texas reached record highs for new COVID cases. The governor reinstituted restrictions on bars, restaurants, and large social gatherings. The mayor of Austin made it mandatory once again for residents to wear masks in public. There has been much discussion on how this would affect the Fourth of July weekend.

Today is Independence Day.

There are two middle-age men who sit on a bench outside our store, late thirties, white, sun-reddened skin, khakis, polo shirts with frayed collars. They look like a couple of suburban dads who recently fell on hard times. They talk in low, polite voices and sip from a receptacle inside a brown paper bag. I don’t know their situation, but they are on that bench every single day when I arrive at work. Today they are both huddled around a cell phone that is playing Jimi Hendrix’s Woodstock rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner.” One of them is crying.

It is like any other shift, except every third customer asks if I am doing anything for the Fourth. I smile and act as though it’s a logical question, but obviously I am doing this for the Fourth.

In the afternoon, a young Muslim couple comes in the store with their son. The mother wears a coral-blue hijab and a matching floral mask, and the son wears a Spider-Man t-shirt. The father shops the LPs while the mother and son look at children’s books.

The only other customer around is an elderly white man with a shaved head. He’s pulling a cart with an oxygen tank on it, the plastic tubes connected to the tank disappearing under a medical mask yellowed by cigarette smoke. He has a slightly manic look in his eye, and he keeps staring at the family.

He’s a little strange but seems harmless. I keep an eye on him, but he doesn’t cause any problems.

After twenty minutes, the family approaches the register with an armload of books. The elderly man with the oxygen tank gets in line behind them.

I start ringing up the books. The child is carrying a little Captain America key chain and cautiously places it on the counter next to the books, looking at his parents out of the corner of his eye.

“What are you going to do with this?” the mother says, picking it up by the chain and examining it like a dead mouse. “Do you have keys I don’t know about? Do you own a car?”

The kid bites his lip and looks away.

The father shrugs and includes the keychain in the purchase.

“Sucker,” the mother mumbles. But she’s smiling too.

“Happy Fourth of July!” the elderly man calls out behind them.

His voice is loud and a little startling. The father turns around and smiles.

“Thank you,” he says. “Happy Fourth of July to you, too.”

“It’s an important day! Independence! I know things are difficult now, but I still believe in this country!”

I thought the man was angry at first, but now I see he’s just emotional. His words are pleading, almost desperate. He starts to take small steps toward the family, pulling the oxygen tank with him, a left hand extended out, palm up.

There are a series of tape marks on the floor to indicate where to stand in order to keep six feet apart.

“Sir,” I say. “Please stay behind the marker.”

He seems confused by this. He looks down at his feet.

“We can’t give up!” he says, shuffling forward again. “People are angry! I know they’re angry! But we’ve been through difficult times before! It’s important that we stay united!”

The mother puts her arm around the son and gently guides him away. The father continues to smile and nod.

“Yes, sir,” he says. “Thank you. Yes, sir.”

He tries to pay faster, but the machine rejects his credit card and he has to start over.

The man continues to shuffle forward. “We’re a good country! We have a rich history! We can…! We can…fix this if we’re all together! I believe in this country! I believe we can fix this!”

Finally, the credit card goes through, and I print out his receipt. The father grabs his bag and moves quickly away from the shuffling man, continuing to smile and nod even as he makes his escape.

“We’re a good country!” the man calls after the retreating family. “We’re good! We can…be good! Happy Fourth of July!”

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