Chapter 1: The Long Goodbye

November 9, 2022

(This is the first chapter of my novel. If you like it, please consider ordering a copy.)

This all started because my editor wanted me to write a story about a dead stripper. She left a message on my cell phone telling me to be at her office at nine o’clock sharp. I rolled out of bed at three-thirty in the afternoon with the mother of all hangovers and braced myself against the familiar nausea and vertigo that followed. The contents of my stomach pitched and moaned, but mercifully everything stayed where it belonged. Afterward, I found a cold slice of pepperoni in the fridge and a half-smoked joint on the coffee table, and decided perhaps I wasn’t going to die after all. 

While I sat cross-legged in my bed, eating breakfast and staring into the void of alcohol-soaked memories from the previous evening, Aubrey Hepburn began rubbing against my leg and purring accusingly, and I remembered I was supposed to pick up cat food from the store. Again. I pulled back the Marx Brothers blanket that was nailed to the wall in lieu of a curtain, and opened the window. Immediately, I regretted it. It was mid-January, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The sun’s rays were like dirty syringes being shoved through my eye sockets and into my dehydrated brain. So far it had been the warmest winter in Colorado since the drought of ’75. Temperatures had dropped below freezing on several occasions and there had been some snow flurries around Christmas, but nothing stuck. The ski season was a bust, and out on the prairie, farmers were already preparing for crop failure. Newscasters kept claiming we were due for a record-breaking blizzard, but as the weeks passed and even the mountaintops remained bone-dry, murmurs about where said newscasters could stick their predictions were growing louder and more creative. 

Squinting into the glare, I put Audrey on the windowsill and said, “See if Doc will let you steal some of his Fancy Feast.” There was a fat one-eyed Maine Coon that lived with a grad student across the street and he had a crush on Audrey. He was neutered so he couldn’t knock her up, but that didn’t stop the old eunuch from puffing out his tail and sniffing her ass whenever she happened by. Audrey wasn’t interested, but she wasn’t above letting him cop a feel if it meant a full belly. My landlord had an irrational aversion to cats, so Audrey came and went via a sick elm tree out back that had one thick, dead branch that conveniently scraped the side of the building next to my only window. She sniffed the air and looked at me indignantly. “I know, I know,” I said. “I’ll pick some up today. I promise.” Finally, she hopped onto the branch and proceeded to the rooftop of the enormous, colonial fraternity house next door, and then onto the balcony and down a staircase. She shot me one last I’m-going-to-piss-on-your-favorite-shirt-while- you’re-sleeping glare, flicked her tail, and then she was gone. I experienced the usual panicked heart-flutter of a protective father watching his only child cross the street alone for the first time, wanting to run after her and shower her with kisses, but the moment soon passed. 

Behind the frat house there were two muscular boy-men wearing nothing but athletic shorts and backward-facing baseball hats with Greek letters embroidered on them. Despite the unseasonal weather, it was still winter on the Front Range and therefore too cold to go shirtless, a fact the hairless duo were studiously trying to ignore. They were shivering over a barbeque grill, sucking on vapes and clutching giant silver cans of Pabst. One of them spotted my head poking out of the window and yelled, “Chicken titty?”

“Excuse me?” I said.

He pulled the grill open, revealing half a dozen charred hamburgers, as many sausages, and several large chicken breasts smeared with red sauce. He pointed at one of the breasts with the spatula and giggled like a sixth grader. “You want a chicken titty? We have extras.”

The smell of roasting flesh and cherry tobacco smoke filled my nostrils, causing my stomach to lurch, and I cursed the smooth-chested bastards.

“No, thanks,” I said.

“Suit yourself, bro,” he replied, somehow offended.

I belched and the tangy taste of bile burned the back of my tongue. The room began to spin once again. I banged the window closed and frantically kicked around a pile of laundry until I found my blue hoodie and a pair of moldy flip-flops. I put them on and shuffled as fast as possible across the hall to the bathroom. 

My apartment building was a former sorority house located three blocks west of Mountainview University, which would have been my alma mater if I hadn’t dropped out in the middle of my final semester six years ago. The building had no official name, but everyone who lived there called it The Trap, either because of the plethora of dead rodents and cockroaches decomposing within its sodden walls or because, like the house in Robert Wise’s 1963 psychological thriller The Haunting, the structure had a tendency to ensnare its occupants, holding them in thrall for decades while it slowly drained their life force. It was an imposing slab of whitewashed brick and brown ivy with red plastic cups perpetually littering the dead front lawn. Rent was seven hundred dollars a month including utilities, the cheapest lodging in town by at least a hundred bucks. The residents were all harmless losers who needed temporary housing. Some of them had been recently released from jail on minor offenses—petty theft, disturbing the peace, that sort of thing. Others were mentally unstable but not crazy enough to be institutionalized. There were at least two drug dealers, three occupants with bipolar disorder, one Korean exchange student, and a schizophrenic in a pear tree. Most were alcoholics. They were all men, primarily in their thirties and forties, misfit Lost Boys who’d wandered away from Neverland and accidentally grown up. There was nowhere else for them to go in this increasingly expensive tourist paradise. My room was two hundred square feet of frayed carpet and peeling lead paint. There was just enough space for a mini fridge, a futon bed, a Goodwill couch, a coffee table, two bookcases filled with three thousand four hundred thirty-eight movies (including two hundred seventeen Criterions, thank you very much), and a seventy-five-inch flat-screen LED HDTV with built-in Wi-Fi and surround sound that took up the entire east wall. The communal kitchen and bathroom were both across the hall, which made my frequent morning vomiting sessions a public performance. 

As always, when I opened the bathroom door, the Mayor was standing in front of the wall-length mirror, shirtless, eyes red and glassy with manic fervor, clutching a green dry-erase marker in his hairy-knuckled right hand, his rotund gut resting on the sink as he leaned in to draw a rectangular box around the name “L.H. OSWALD,” which had been scribbled on the mirror in child-like block letters, surrounded by the words “CIA,” “G. SOROS,” “DEEP STATE,” “9/11,” and “MKULTRA.”

“Precisely, precisely,” he mumbled as he drew an arrow connecting the green rectangle to a red triangle above it containing the name “WILLIAM CAMPBELL.” He turned to me and waved the marker like a frantic conductor keeping time for an invisible orchestra. “Why didn’t I see it before? It’s so obvious. That’s how The Beatles got the White Album. White Album…White House. ‘Revolution 9’…nine Supreme Court Justices. It’s so obvious.” 

The Mayor was the landlord of The Trap, as well as the resident conspiracy theorist, and he spent approximately six hours a day in the bathroom waiting for some poor schmuck to use the toilet so he could ambush them with his latest rant. I had been avoiding the restroom altogether for the last two weeks because I owed the man a considerable amount of money, but this was an emergency. Before he could ensnare me in a conversation, I turned my back on him and kicked open the nearest stall. Inside the porcelain bowl was an unflushable gumbo of toilet paper, feces, and cigarette butts. I backed out with my palm over my mouth. The next stall had a handmade out-of-order sign taped to the door in the same manic scrawl as the letters on the mirror. I belched again, and my lower jaw began to tingle. I started to panic. 

Thankfully, the third toilet proved serviceable, and I fell to my knees in front of it just as a stream of pizza and whiskey shot fountain-like out of my mouth. 

“Not feeling so good, huh?” said the Mayor. I tried to tell him to shut up, but all that came out was a whimper and another retching session. “You got in pretty late last night,” he continued, the words sounding distant and hollow from inside the bowl, like the voice of God in a Cecil B. DeMille movie. “Two o’clock in the morning. I was listening to Alex Jones. Did you know there are chemicals in our drinking water that are turning frogs gay? Now, don’t get me wrong, man, I got nothing against the homosexual community as such. My nephew is gay. I think. Or maybe he just likes eyeliner. You know how kids are these days. None of my affair. What one consenting adult does with another consenting adult inside the confines of his or her own domicile with various lubes and devices is none of my affair. But, you know, man, amphibians, Sam…amphibians, well, they got no choice in the matter. Uncle Sam decides to put fluoride in the water supposedly for dental hygiene reasons, but of course it doesn’t stop there. Next thing you know they’re testing out all kinds of drugs on the population. That’s why these kids are maturing so quickly these days. Have you noticed that? Junior high girls with fully developed mammaries and eleven-year-old boys with mustaches. It’s the hormones in the water, and believe you me, gay frogs are just the beginning. You don’t usually stay out that late on Thursdays, but I guess you had a big date or something. Did you have a big date or something, Sam?”

The Mayor tracked the movements of all the residents in The Trap. His room was at the front of the house with a large bay window facing the street, and when he wasn’t trying to solve the JFK assassination on the bathroom mirror or microwaving Hungry-Man dinners, that’s where he sat, hour after hour, like Norman Bates’ mother in Psycho, smoking weed and listening to alt-media podcasts on his laptop. 

His real name was Kenneth Nostmann, but everyone called him the Mayor. In fact, he had actually once been the mayor of Mountainview, back in the mid-’70s, when the city was still a quaint little hippie hamlet and Kenneth was a quaint little twenty-two-year-old hippie, fresh out of college, complete with long flowing blonde hair, paisley bell-bottoms, and patchy mutton chops. He ran for office on a lark, telling the newspaper he’d recently graduated with a philosophy degree and could not find suitable employment, but when the primary Democratic candidate dropped out of the race because of a family emergency, Kenneth found himself facing off against a far-right dinosaur whose platform included segregated swimming pools and a crucifix on the front lawn of the post office. Kenneth’s father was a prominent businessman who owned property all over the Front Range, and even though he didn’t support his son’s farcical campaign, the Nostmann name carried weight in the local community. Kenneth won by less than five hundred votes. To everyone’s surprise, he took the position seriously and ended up occupying the mayor’s office for two relatively uneventful years before he was ousted by a more traditional candidate in a three-piece suit. Unfortunately, Kenneth did not take the loss well. He claimed the election was rigged by “Nixon’s plumbers,” and despite his family’s protests, vowed to spend the rest of his life exposing the dark powers that had conspired to keep him out of public office. He staged a solo sit-in at the college that went unnoticed for almost two days, and he marched up and down in front of City Hall with a sign that said “Keep Tricky DICK Out of Mountainview!” before he was arrested for disturbing the peace. 

His parents didn’t disown him exactly, but they did choose to move out of the state shortly thereafter. The Nostmanns sold off all their assets and retired to Florida, leaving their son a single piece of property as his inheritance. Kenneth was supposed to hang on to The Trap for a few years and then sell it when the market was up, but instead he moved in and started renting out the rooms, dealing drugs to his borders when he needed extra cash. Forty years and seven Grateful Dead songs later, here he remained, trapped in The Trap, trying to suss out how it was all connected—Kennedy, Lennon, Malcolm X, the Bay of Pigs, and his failed political ideals. The property was probably worth a cool half million by now. His blond hair had turned gray and abandoned the apex of his scalp, leaving a greasy horseshoe around the edges that he pulled back into a sad ponytail; his stomach had ballooned into a hairy mass reminiscent of a pregnant orangutan; and despite the thickness of his round wire-rimmed glasses, he could barely see ten feet in front of his face. He left the apartment to do laundry and buy groceries, but aside from that, he was here. Always. 

“Last Thursday, you came home right before midnight, and you were with that girl. The one with the red hair. You didn’t introduce me to her, man, so I don’t know her name. I remember because I was watching the Zapruder film, and she looked a little like Jackie O. Not the hair so much, or the body, or the face, but there was something about her eyes. You ever notice how Jackie’s eyes are set too far apart, like a deer or a rabbit? Prey animals have eyes on the sides of their heads for greater peripheral vision, while predators have eyes in front. Anyhow, the girl you brought home last Thursday…the one with the red hair…she had prey-animal eyes like Jackie. Did you notice that, man?”

My abdominal muscles were on fire. Throwing up was really the only form of physical exercise that I got. It wasn’t a great cardiovascular workout, but I did have a flat stomach. I leaned my head against the side of the bowl for a short breather and then went back to work. Two more dry heaves to make sure I’d made a full deposit and I felt whole again. I flushed, wiped away the tears, and stood up, a full-fledged homo erectus once again. Meanwhile, the Mayor was still narrating fragments from my life like a bloated, balding Rod Serling setting up the premise for the most boring episode of The Twilight Zone ever made. 

“And then last Friday, you didn’t come home at all. I mean, you came home eventually, of course, but not that night. I asked you about that later and you said you slept over at a friend’s house and I asked you what friend and you said that was none of my business and I said, ‘You got that right.’ Remember that, man?” He put the marker under his nostrils and inhaled deeply. “By the way, you owe me sixteen-hundred forty-seven dollars and thirty-five cents.”

This was something the Mayor was particularly adept at. He would lull you into a false sense of security with blather about gay frogs and Trap gossip, and then, just when you thought he was a harmless addle-brained socialist, he’d ambush you with capitalist demands. 

I rinsed my mouth out with water and spat in the sink. “Sixteen-hundred? That can’t be right.”

“Sixteen forty-seven and thirty-five cents.” He pointed to the far corner of the mirror, which contained a row of numbers underneath the words “Sam D,” and then he began listing my expenses. “Rent for November and December, plus that ounce you bought from me on New Year’s Eve. Remember that? You came home with that blonde, knocked on my door at two in the morning, said you’d pay me in a week. That was sixteen days ago.” 

“Oh, right. I forgot about New Year’s.”

He put the cap back on the marker and set it on the sink. “I bet you did. And then October tenth you needed thirty-five cents for the laundromat. Said you had to do a load of whites. Emergency, you said. Never did get that back to me, man. Of course, these figures don’t include the late penalties.” 

“Late what? Ah, come on.”

“It’s right there in the lease, man. If you don’t pay by the third of the month, there’s a hundred dollar fee and an additional penalty every subsequent week thereafter. We went over this last month.” He inserted his index finger into the dark cavern of his bellybutton up to the second knuckle and began to rummage around in there thoughtfully. “That’s the problem with your generation. Always looking for a handout. Never planning ahead. This isn’t a charity house I’m running, man. I gotta eat too, you know.”

It didn’t look as though he had been skipping any meals recently, but I held my tongue. 

“I told you I’d get you the money. I have a couple of checks I haven’t cashed, and my editor called this morning with an assignment.”

“Another movie review?” he sneered. “I don’t think that’s going to cover it, man.” 

“A cover story.” 

I had no intention of writing the article, but he didn’t need to know that. Like most shut-ins, the Mayor loved gossip, especially if it involved city politics or law enforcement, hoping to one day uncover the poison pill he could force feed the Mountainview illuminati and reinstate himself in the seat of power. He was incredibly well informed on local affairs for someone who never read a newspaper or went outside. 

“Well, well. Look who’s playing with the big boys,” he said. “What’s it about?”

“You know I can’t tell you that. But it’s a huge piece. It’ll cover my debt and then some. You’ll see.” 

“Yeah but…”

“Great. I’ll let you know when the check comes in.”

I exited the bathroom before he could stop me, rushed across the hall to my room, and bolted the door. I wasn’t worried about the Mayor. He liked to talk big, but the man rarely followed through on any of his threats. He’d calm down if I gave him five-hundred dollars. Of course, I didn’t have five-hundred dollars and I couldn’t avoid the bathroom forever, but that was a problem for another day.

I pulled the blanket off the bed and wrapped myself in it again. I was already seven hours late for the meeting with my editor, so I figured one more wouldn’t make a difference. 

I gargled with mouthwash and spat into a Nosferatu mug sitting on the windowsill. I plucked the joint off the coffee table and finished it off in three enormous hits. I put a kettle of water on the hotplate and fired up the DVD player. It felt like a Humphrey Bogart kind of day. I selected The Maltese Falcon. I didn’t have time to watch the whole thing, so I skipped ahead to my favorite scene, the one at the end where Bogie, in a smashing pin-striped double-breasted suit, presents the bad guys with the coveted falcon statue the movie is named after, which turns out to be a fake, causing a perm-headed bow-tie-wearing Peter Lorre to shout obscenities at fat dapper Sydney Greenstreet before falling into a chair and crying like a baby. When the criminals leave, Bogie immediately turns them into the police before badgering a murder confession out of doe-eyed femme fatale Mary Astor while simultaneously declaring his undying love for her. This all happens in the span of about four minutes.

The kettle began to whistle. I poured the hot water into a mug over an Earl Grey tea bag and dumped in three heaping spoons of sugar. I blew and sipped. I opened my laptop and logged onto my website. I wrote: Watching The Maltese Falcon hungover and high, which is really the only way to watch The Maltese Falcon, methinks. I love how romantic relationships work in old movies. There’s no dating, no casual sex, no moving in together to see if you’re emotionally compatible, none of that half-assed postmodern crap they talk about in Cosmo. She walks into the room looking like a million bucks and, BAM, you both just know. So what if she turns out to be a ruthless sociopath who murdered your business partner and lied about it? Does that mean you dump her? Hell, no. You banter with her for a while, insult her, prove that you know just how dark her soul really is, and then, in the middle of an argument, you plant a kiss on her. But not one of those gross twenty-first century open-mouthed kisses. No way. It’s got to be a classic-movie kiss, a black-and-white kiss. A kiss where you grab her roughly by the head and mash your face against hers while the violin music swells in the background. No tongues allowed. And even if she’s a no-good deceitful devil woman and you’re a hard-boiled detective with a secret sentimental streak and you have to send her to jail for twenty years, she knows you’ll be right there waiting for her when she gets out. Because that’s what love is, baby doll.

I posted it on the usual social networking sites. The likes and lols immediately began rolling in. I closed the computer and started looking around for my coat and bus pass. Someone at the paper was bound to see that post and report it up the chain. Now I definitely had to get to work. 

I was not allowed to watch movies growing up.

It wasn’t just movies. There was a long list of things I wasn’t allowed to do. Dance, date, curse, masturbate, listen to rap music, read comic books, play Dungeons and Dragons, etc.

My father was a small-town fundamentalist preacher, and he spent most of his life thinking of things I wasn’t allowed to do. Or so it seemed to me.

There was only one movie theater in Yuma, Colorado. It was a small, brick building located on Main Street next to an auto parts store, and it played one movie a month. I was not allowed to enter it. My father considered Hollywood a bastion of liberal heathens and devil worshipers, and movies were the propaganda they used to convert us to communism.

Well, modern movies. Old movies were okay. Preferably with John Wayne or Ronald Reagan in them. Old movies didn’t have cursing or nudity or subliminal Bolshevic ideals. Old movies were innocent. Old movies were wholesome. Old movies were American.

So for eighteen years, while my peers were out dancing to MC Hammer and being indoctrinated into Marxism by John Hughes, I sat at home watching Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall and Cary Grant and those glorious Hepburns. Over and over again.

And I loved it. I mean, I didn’t love being locked in the house with my father listening to Rush Limbaugh and Lawrence Welk. But I loved those old movies. The quaffed hair, the fast dialogue, those giant cars. And the hats! Oh, the hats!

Eventually, I would escape my father and attend college, where I watched all the modern movies my peers were talking about, and I loved them too but not in the same way. Very few hats, for one thing.

In many ways, my first novel, THE MEAN REDS, is a love song to those old movies that helped me survive a lonely, repressed childhood. The narrator is a delusional young man who smokes too much weed and drinks too much whiskey…and obsessively watches too many old movies until the line between reality and cinema begins to blur in unhealthy ways. The title of the novel is from a line in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. There’s a cat in the story named Audrey Hepburn, and the chapters are all classic movie titles. There are numerous other Easter eggs hidden throughout the plot that reference old movies. You don’t need to recognize any of them to enjoy the book, but I’m hoping other cinephiles will get a kick out of them.

If you’re interested movies or books or murder mysteries or noir or cats named Audrey Hepburn, please consider ordering my first novel, THE MEAN REDS.

The air conditioning at work broke down last week.

Actually, that’s not right. I mean, all the words are in the right order, the facts are true, the grammar is correct, but that sentence does not come close to adequately expressing the situation at hand.

This is Texas. That means it’s hot. Really hot. Like cooking-bacon-on-the-asphalt hot. Skin-burning-on-the-walk-from-the-car-to-the-supermarket hot. Eyeballs-boiling-in-your-skull hot.

But this is also Austin, so that means it’s humid, too. Damp. Moist. (I know, I know! That’s why I said it!) The air is so thick it feels like you’re breathing through a straw. Oxygen no longer exists–we’re all swimming through atmosphere soup here. Whenever you step outside, you become a gross, wet, clammy sponge.

So let’s recap.

110 degrees outside. 88 degrees inside. Corona virus numbers continuing to skyrocket. Protests in the streets. Political upheaval on a daily basis. And then there’s us: a bunch of stressed-out wet sponges breathing the soup through masks and providing exemplary customer service to the ungrateful masses.

(Well, exemplary, begrudging…whatever)

We’re all just trying to survive here, both physically and mentally.

A man walks into a bookstore wearing a t-shirt that says NEVER SOCIALISM and asks for Animal Farm by George Orwell. There’s no punchline. This is reality. “I’m going to read it to my grandson!” he says. “I loved this book when I was a kid.” I raise my arms, trying to dry out the pits.

A woman walks into a bookstore without a mask and demands service. “It’s too hot in here to wear a mask,” she says. I stare at her. From behind my mask. Which I have been wearing for five hours. “Do you understand what I mean?” she says. A trickle of sweat runs down my ass crack.

A man walks into a bookstore wearing a hat that says he’s a veteran of World War II. I thank him for wearing a mask and tell him we are practicing social distancing in our store. He thanks me for following regulations that keep the public safe. I smile under my mask.

A teenager walks into a bookstore and says, “You got any books by that Marx guy?” “Karl Marx?” “Yeah, that’s the one.” I take him to the political science section. “Sweet! This is the guy that started socialism, right?” “Well, kind of I guess…” “Sweet! I’m going to read the shit out of him!”

I go stand in front of a fan and feel the cool breeze on my skin.

I’ve seen every conceivable kind of mask. I’ve seen hospital masks and gas masks and hockey masks. I’ve seen halloween masks and Disney masks and horror masks.

People are making their own masks, and they’re getting very creative with the prints. Floral, paisley, polka dot, striped. There are red masks to match red shoes. There are yellow masks that match yellow ties. A young girl came in the store yesterday, probably twelve years old, wearing a cat t-shirt and a cat mask with a pink nose and little whiskers on it.

Bandanas are popular for a certain kind of Texan. You know the type. Cowboy hat, boots, Wrangler jeans. They pretend they’re put out by the whole mask thing, but honestly, they seem absolutely giddy to be wearing their cowboy cosplay in public, and I’m happy for them.

A young gay man came in the other day with a mask that depicted Stevie Nicks as a Catholic saint. A WWII veteran had a mask in the pattern of the American flag. A teenager had a mask that said Black Lives Matter; her friend’s said I Can’t Breathe. My coworker has a mask with Anthony Fauci’s face all over it.

People wear plastic shields that resemble those worn by riot police. People wear black ninja masks with fancy breathing filters. People wear paper towels held in place by rubber bands.

Last week, a teenager walked in the store without a mask. When I mentioned our policy, he was horrified. Obviously, he had no ill intentions; he’d simply forgotten to bring his mask. He apologized profusely and went to his car. Five minutes later, he returned wearing a hooded sweatshirt, the hood up over his head and the draw string pulled so tight there was just a little puckered hole for him to see out of.

When I thanked an elderly couple for wearing masks, the woman turned toward me and said, “Yup. It’s a great time to be an ugly woman!” Her husband snorted and shook his head.

Someone wore a Freddy Krueger mask in the store. I pointed them toward the horror section. Darth Vader, Jason, and Ronald Regan have also made appearances.

My favorite mask story was from a coworker. A man walked in wearing a pair of expensive silk panties on his head. She’d never seen that particular face covering before, but his nose and mouth were completely shielded, so she didn’t object. With a straight face, he asked where we kept our Buddhist literature, and she directed him to the Eastern Philosophy section. He came back with a big pile of books, his face flushed, the silk panties slightly askew. “I love this place!” he declared.

I just dropped my wife off at the emergency room. They wouldn’t let me wait inside, and the heat index in Texas is so high right now our car’s air conditioning feels like a camel breaking wind. The nurse told me to go home. It didn’t feel right, but there weren’t any other options. My wife is texting me updates as they come in.

“Vital signs are normal.”

“This is so stupid.”

The COVID-19 test she took last week came back negative; however, her chest pains and cough have gotten worse. She’s having problems sleeping because she can’t lay on her side. We called our doctor to make an appointment so we could figure out what is happening, but the doctor said to go to the emergency room instead.

“It’s probably just asthma. I hate myself.”

When she hung up with the doctor, we debated our options. Our co-pay for an emergency room visit is $300, but we didn’t know how long she would be there or what tests they would do that might cost more.

“Fuuuuuuck I feel like this was a mistake.”

If you are exhibiting any COVID-19 symptoms right now, your regular physician will not see you for obvious reasons. This means you have to make a costly trip to the emergency room if you need a doctor.

“They ordered an EKG and blood work and a chest x-ray and I have a fucking needle in my arm and it hurts.”

Apparently, false negatives are common with COVID-19, which means sometimes the test says you don’t have the virus even though you do. This was one of the reasons our doctor sent us to the emergency room.

“And meanwhile the registration people have called me 3 times telling me to fill out some forms, and I’m like getting an x-ray, so just fucking hold your horses.”

Adult Onset Asthma runs in my wife’s family, and she began exhibiting symptoms more than a year ago. She spoke to her doctor about it, but the symptoms were mild at that time and she didn’t get an official diagnosis before quarantine. This is probably what’s causing her discomfort, but we’re struggling to get her the care she needs.

“Everything is normal but they won’t test me for COVID unless they are admitting me. They don’t have enough to test everyone.”

To recap: if you have COVID-19 symptoms, your usual doctor will not see you until you have a test, but many of the tests are false negatives, so if you have tested negative and you are still exhibiting symptoms, they send you to the emergency room, where they tell you to get another test.

“So I can either get another test or go back to work, but I can’t get help for my problem unless that problem is COVID, but even if I test negative for COVID and I still have symptoms, I can’t get help because I might have COVID.”

So this is the conundrum. We work at retail jobs where we’re exposed to the public eighty hours a week in a state with one of the highest infection rates in the country and where health information and subsidies are lacking. Not only is it difficult to get an inexpensive test with quick results; we’re also having a hard time finding the necessary everyday healthcare we need.

“I don’t know what I should do. I don’t know I don’t know. Please come and get me.”

Libraries and bookstores are breeding grounds for conspiracy theories. I blame it on the soft chairs and reading material. They attract the type of people who have too much time and not enough friends.

I used to run the political-science/true-crime section in the store, and there was a regular parade of eccentrics who came by to peruse espionage literature and educate me on what was really happening in this country. There were the male Baby Boomers who knew for certain JFK was murdered by the Illuminati; the female Baby Boomers who knew for certain Marilyn Monroe was murdered by JFK; and the Gen Xers who believed everyone on the planet could be murdered by anyone in the government at any time.

I assume the Millennials are getting all their paranoid fantasies from Twitter.

If you ever meet a conspiracy theorist, follow the same rules you would if confronted by a baboon in the wild: stay quiet, don’t look them in the eye, and slowly back away.

Normally, they’re on the fringes of society, and you can spot them fairly easily if you know what to look for. There’s a certain manic glint in the eye, a twitchy demeanor. Camouflage cargo pants are a good indicator. Or a custom t-shirt that says something about the FBI.

In other words, they tend to stand out.

However, since the pandemic, it has become increasingly difficult to spot the conspiracy theorists. This new breed dresses like everyone else. They come from no particular race or socio-economic background. They could be your neighbor, your friend, your postal worker, your bank teller. They’re definitely your grandmother.

Here are some of the conspiracy theories my coworkers and I have heard so far from customers: China made the coronavirus, Russia made the coronavirus, Trump made the caronavirus, the Clintons made the coronavirus, Big Pharma made the coronavirus. The coronavirus is part of a plot by Bill Gates to release a vaccine that will sterilize a majority of the human population. George Soros created the coronavirus to crash the world economy and instigate global Marxism. Black Lives Matter created the coronavirus to start a race war and instigate global Marxism. The Koch brothers have a vaccine for the coronavirus, but they’re only giving it to their billionaire friends. Hollywood created the coronavirus because… That was it for that one. Just because.

Last week my coworker spoke to a woman on the phone who asked about our mask policy. She told the caller all customers were required to wear masks at all times in the store and practice social distancing. The caller was not happy with the answer. She screamed “This is a scamdemic!” and then hung up.

A man came to the register the other day with a red bandana wrapped around his face like he was going to rob a stagecoach. He pointed at my hospital mask. “You shouldn’t wear those,” he said. He waited for me to ask why, and when I didn’t, he continued. “The wire in the nose is a 5G antenna. Look it up.” I did look it up on my 5G phone, and he was right: it is a crazy conspiracy theory that people believe.

My favorite was an old woman with a home permanent who was buying an armful of knitting books. She set her purchases on the counter and announced, with a proud Southern drawl and a wave of her hand, “Don’t worry. This will all be over soon.”

I didn’t know if she was talking about coronavirus or the world, so I just said, “Really?”

She nodded. “It’s an Indian summer, honey. Don’t you know? Everything’s crazier during an Indian summer. But it’ll calm down when the heat breaks. You’ll see.”

“Sounds good to me,” I said.

It was better than any of the other theories I’d heard.

Yesterday my wife drove to a clinic across town, where an overworked nurse shoved a four-inch pipe cleaner inside each of her nostrils and swirled it around until she obtained the necessary fluids for a COVID-19 test. My wife described the experience as, “Like getting a Pap smear for your face.”

She’s had a lingering cough for a week, accompanied by chest pains, fatigue, congestion, shortness of breath, and muscle aches. These are a few of the symptons for COVID-19.

My wife is overworked, which probably accounts for the fatigue and muscle aches, and she has asthma and allergies, which might explain the other symptoms. We just don’t know. She probably doesn’t have COVID-19, but since we work in an exposed environment every day, we couldn’t take the chance.

About a quarter of my coworkers have shown symptoms of the virus. Some have stayed home until the symptoms passed, others were tested. So far no one has come up positive, but the numbers keep rising in Texas and it feels like it’s just a matter of time. We’re all playing a germy Russian roulette.

Our work has been understanding. We were both told to stay home until the test results came back. We have to use our vacation days, but at least we still get paid. My boss made a point of telling me to put our health first and not worry about the store. Our overworked coworkers who will be even more overworked in our absence have all been supportive. We’re grateful.

We have good health insurance through our job, but even with that coverage, we will have to pay more than $200 out of pocket. (See the update at the bottom of the blog for more information.) We can afford it, but it was kind of shocking to get a bill that high for a vital health test during a pandemic. I’ve heard reports of tests costing much more in the Austin area, and the amount varies widely from state to state. No wonder the virus is hitting impoverished communities so much harder. If you’re out of work and can’t pay rent, what are the chances you have $250 for a test that you’re not sure if you need?

We’re trying not to take it too seriously. We keep reminding ourselves it’s very unlikely she’s infected. This is just precautionary. We make jokes about it. Whenever my wife coughs, I scream, “You’re killing me!” To which she yells back, “And there’s more where that came from!” Last night, I left a dirty dish in the kitchen sink and she held it up like a dead body. “This is how you treat a dying woman!”

The test results should come back in five to ten days. “I’m sure they’ll be negative,” I say. “Right,” my wife responds. “And then it’s back to work! If at first you don’t succeed…”

(EDIT: So it turns out that the test might actually cost us more than $200. My wife went to Austin Emergency, a medical facility that does not require appointments, because she wanted to do the test as quickly as possible so we wouldn’t put an undue burden on our coworkers by staying in quarantine longer than necessary. It was a drive-thru test. She stayed in the car the whole time and did not see a doctor. She asked the nurse if the test would be covered by her insurance, and she said it shouldn’t be a problem, a vague answer if ever there was one. It turns out Austin Emergency is an out-of-network facility, something the hospital staff certainly knows by now, which means our insurance only covers a fraction of the cost. It seems likely the bill is going to be over $1,000. Talking to some of our friends on social media, we discovered this has been happening to other people, as well. We’re currently contacting the local newspaper to see if they want to do a story.)

There are currently four positions at the store. Register, shelver, buyer, greeter. Every employee rotates between these four positions throughout the day. Greeter is the worst.

The greeter stands behind a counter/partition next to the front door, and when customers come in, they say, “Thank you for wearing a mask! We are also practicing social distancing! Please stay six feet away from other customers!” The exclamation points are essential. They indicate the excitement, positivity, and willingness (nay, heartfelt desire) to make the customer’s every wish come true!!!

If you are a customer, please know these are not the exclamation points we want to use. The exclamation points we want to use are thus: “Hey, asshole! Yeah, you! I work here eight hours a day, forty hours a week, because some dickwad government official decided to open up our economy early during a pandemic and I’m not wealthy enough to afford health insurance and rent without this job, and that thin little piece of fabric you’re wearing over your face is the absolute minimum you can do to ensure that I don’t contract a virus that could cause me to die by choking on my own fluids! So keep it on! And I do mean ON! That means over your mouth AND nose! Don’t make me follow you around the store and tell you over and over again to pull it over your nose! I don’t want to be here, and I resent you for participating in this process!!!”

Yesterday, I was working as the greeter when a small, young Asian man walked through the front door. I gave him the usual spiel about masks. He nodded and said he was with the Austin Health Department.

I immediately assumed he was going to talk to us about COVID-19 regulations. I’ve been back to work for a month now, and we have not heard from a single government official during that time. Not a phone call, not an email, not a pop-in. Nothing. Of course there have been ordinances and mandates passed by the nation, state, and city, but no one has contacted us directly about what we can and cannot do. Or, more importantly, what our customers can and cannot do. Sure, the city requires citizens to wear masks in public, but if customer refuses to wear a mask in our store, what exactly happens? We don’t know. No one has discussed it with us.

So when a man walks into my bookstore during a pandemic and says he’s from the Austin Health Department, I just assume he’s going to talk to us about the deadly virus killing thousands of people all over the state. So I nod and tell him to go ahead.

He tells me there was a complaint filed by a local citizen a month ago about people smoking too close to the front door, and he’s here to follow up. In Austin, there’s no smoking allowed within fifteen feet of the front door of a business. I cock my head and ask him to repeat himself. There’s no problem with my hearing. He’s here about a smoking complaint CALLED IN A MONTH AGO.

I page the store manager.

Our manager is a wonderful 50ish-year-old woman with long, gray hair pulled into a haphazard bun, thick glasses, partial deafness in one ear, and a general attitude of “I will accomodate all reasonable requests…as long as you’re not a dick, in which case I will politely and repeatedly tell you to go to hell.” In other words, everything you’d want in a boss. She refers to herself as the Book Witch.

Anyhow, the Book Witch arrives, and the man from the Austin Health Department repeats his reason for being here. She nods and says, “Okay.”

There’s a long pause, and the he says, “So I need to write you a citation.” Another pause. He shuffles nervously. “For the health-code violation.”

“No,” says the Book Witch.

“Excuse me?”

“I remember the woman who made that complaint,” says the Book Witch. “She was an elderly woman who came into our store to browse. She was upset that we didn’t have any chairs for her to sit in. When I told her there was a bench outside, she said there were men smoking there, and she was going to report it to the Health Department. That bench is almost twenty yards from our front door. So there was no health-code violation.”

The young man cleared his throat, and then he said he would go outside and investigate. The Book Witch nodded and followed him out the door.

They were outside for about ten minutes. The young man reached down to a crevice in the sidewalk and picked up an old cigarette butt. There was a verbal exchange that I couldn’t hear, and then the Book Witch came back inside, grabbed a tape measure, went back outside, and began to measure the distance between the front door and the place where the cigarette butt was found.

It turns out the young man had found a cigarette butt outside the store, and he decided it was evidence someone had been smoking less than fifteen feet from the store. Never mind the fact that it was an old cigarette butt that could have blown there from across the street two years ago. In response, the Book Witch decided to measure the distance between the front door and the cigarette butt. It was seventeen feet, not fifteen.

They came back inside. The young man started scribbling furiously on a piece of paper. When he got through, he asked the Book Witch to sign it. She looked at it and said no. He told her he needed her to sign the paperwork to indicate he had investigated the claim. She said no. He said her signing the paperwork did not indicate that the store were responsible for violating the health policy. The Book Witch said he should write that on the form. He did not want to write that on the form. The Book Witch said she would not sign the form unless he wrote on it that the store had not violated any health policy. The young man repeated that the form did not indicate the store was responsible for violating the health policy. The Book Witch said in that case it shouldn’t be a problem if he wrote on the form that the store had not violated any health policy.

There was a brief silent stand-off, accompanied in my mind by a lone harmonica (a la The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly) and then the young man wrote on the paper that the store had not violated any health policy. The Book Witch signed it.

A man walked into the store. I said, “Thank you for wearing a mask! We are also practicing social distancing! Please stay six feet away from other customers!”

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!”

There’s an old adage in retail that I learned from an overweight boss when I was a teenager: “If you’ve got time to lean, you’ve got time to clean.” I have always hated that saying for three reasons: 1) it’s annoyingly passive-aggressive; 2) it suggests the employee should be dedicating every waking second on the clock to the needs of the employer, and if they take a moment to rest or take a deep breath after dealing with a surly customer, they are taking advantage of the employer’s precious time; 3) I hate sayings that rhyme. They’re annoying.

But like all cliches, there’s a smidge of truth in there, too.

In normal non-plague times, retail work is an exercise in monotony. Don’t let anyone tell you different. It matters not what you’re selling or how well you’re paid (although, let’s be clear, you will never be paid more than a subsistence wage). There is a mind-numbing ritual to the job that sinks into your bones and becomes part of your nature. You clean, you service customers, you balance the register, you clean. Then get up the next day and do it again.

Most retail workers learn how to shut off their brains. The job requires very little thought, so your mind is free to wander wherever it pleases. As a writer, this is one of the perks for me. I think about plots and characters and dialogue. To the untrained eye, it might appear that I’m scanning a shelf of books to update our inventory, but in reality, I’m a thousand miles away, battling aliens on a spaceship or watching two people fall in love on the subway. I’m there but I’m not there, if you know what I mean.

During a global pandemic in which you are forced to return to work at a time when health experts agree everyone should be avoiding contact with strangers, the retail job becomes a surreal exercise in what I have been calling panic-boredom.

Panic-boredom is a state of mind in which the retail employee performs the mundane acts of their job that usually produce an almost zombie-like state of mental torpor, except underneath every register transaction and pricing shift, there’s a layer of existential dread in which the employee imagines they are lying on a hospital bed because the customer in front of them refuses to pull his mask over his nose.

The job is still boring, but now it’s also dangerous. The space in the back of your mind that used to wander outside the workplace is now occupied with visions of death. You can’t relax. You can’t mentally escape. It’s exhausting.

Last week, a customer asked me how I was doing. She was a perky blonde in spandex yoga pants and a t-shirt that said It’s Wine-O’Clock Somewhere! She was buying a stack of self-help books with titles like Think Your Depression Away! and 7 Ways to Build a You That’s Better Than the You You Always Wanted to Make Better!

I told her I was fine because A) I didn’t want to have a long conversation with her about anything, and B) if I told her how I was really feeling, I imagine her head would have opened up and a bunch of little sad-face emojis would have floated out…and then I would have stabbed each and every one.

“You know,” she said, “it must be nice to have something to do right now. I mean, I’ve just been stuck in my house for the last three months, ordering takeout and doing puzzles with the kids. I mean, there’s nothing to do at my house. Nothing at all. We just watch Netflix all day. Can you imagine? I’m going bonkers! At least here you can be around books and people! Right?” She reached through the plastic partition dividing us and touched my arm. “Maybe I’ll apply for a job here! What do you think of that? We could be coworkers!”

She laughed, delighted with herself, and then bounced out the exit.

I nodded and slathered my arm in hand sanitizer.

If you’ve got time to lean, you’ve got time to clean.

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