Inside Man

May 28, 2023

(copyright 2022 Dale Bridges)

On the day of the appointment, Rachel checked into the hospital for routine surgery, and when she woke up, she was told there was a small man living inside her. 

“Just underneath the liver,” the doctor said. “On top of the large intestine.”

He pointed at an x-ray of Rachel’s abdomen, which showed a tiny skeleton standing upright with one bony hand raised high. It appeared to be waving. The doctor opened a file and consulted the contents. The small man was eleven centimeters in height and approximately two hundred twenty-seven grams in weight. He was thirty-four years old and lactose intolerant. He had blonde hair and green eyes. He survived by absorbing liquid, nutrients, and oxygen from Rachel’s body. The doctor held up a picture. Rachel had expected the small man to be deformed in some way, but he was actually quite handsome. He had a strong, square jaw and one of those little movie-star dents on the end of his chin.

“Why didn’t you remove him?” Rachel asked.

“He did not wish to be relocated,” the doctor explained. “He has lived inside you his entire life. It’s the only home he knows.” 

Rachel found this oddly flattering. She had never been considered special in any way before. In school, she had received middling grades, and in sports, she mostly sat on the bench. She was an average-looking woman, and when she did go on dates, which was rare, they were with average looking men. She was five feet, four inches tall and one hundred seventy pounds, which was the exact average height and weight for an American female in the twenty-first century. There was nothing extraordinary about Rachel at all. Now here was this small man with a movie-star chin dent living under her liver, and he could have gone anywhere, done anything, but he chose to stay with her. No one else she knew had small men under their livers. Yes, Rachel felt very special indeed.

The small man had asked the doctors for only two things. 1) A tiny tailored suit made from fluid-resistant materials. 2) A tiny computer with internet access. The doctor gave Rachel a prescription for antibiotics and an app she could use to connect with the small man’s computer if she desired to speak with him. Rachel drove home carefully, trying not to jostle the small man. 

As soon as she got home, Rachel downloaded the app on her cell phone and contacted the small man, who was exceedingly polite. He thanked her for allowing him to stay under her liver and let Rachel know her body needed more potassium. She ate a banana and felt better. 

They got along splendidly right from the start. Since the small man had few life experiences of his own, he was fascinated by everything about Rachel. He wanted to know where she was born and what her childhood was like. He asked endless questions about her job, which was not very exciting, and her hobbies, which were also quite dull. He was thrilled by the most mundane details, and the unfamiliar attention made Rachel feel giddy, as though she’d drunk one too many glasses of wine. They talked late into the night, and when they could no longer keep their eyes open, they drifted off to sleep together. It was the most memorable day of Rachel’s life.

Because of the surgery, Rachel was allowed three weeks medical leave, and she spent every moment with the small man. She told him about social media and all the people he could meet online, but the small man was not interested in anyone but Rachel. They quickly fell into a routine. Rachel normally slept late on her days off, but the small man was an early riser and would contact her cell phone every morning at six o’clock on the dot cheerfully demanding breakfast. He always wanted the same thing: two eggs over easy, one piece of dry wheat toast, and a cup of earl grey tea, black. Rachel preferred her eggs scrambled and milk in her tea, but the small man was fussy and lactose intolerant. During breakfast, Rachel read the sports section aloud. She did not care for athletic competition herself, but somehow the small man had learned the rules of baseball and was quite the avid Astros fan. Rachel showed him several sports-related websites, but he insisted that he preferred listening to Rachel over professional commentators.

After breakfast, they went shopping. Toys, furniture, office supplies–it didn’t matter. The small man loved to browse the treasures of a world larger than his own. More than anything, he enjoyed shopping for clothes. Or to be more precise, he enjoyed shopping for clothes for Rachel. It was their favorite game. Rachel would put her phone on video chat and walk through the aisles of a clothing store until the small man told her to stop. “That one,” he would say. “No, not that one, silly. The one on the right. Yes, that one.” It was never lingerie or anything sexual. His tastes were conservative–paisley scarves, oatmeal blazers, long cardigan sweaters in muted autumn colors–but he had a good eye, and Rachel was often surprised by how certain articles of clothing he selected made her look taller or slimmer or more adult. It was like playing dress up with your invisible friend. She had never paid much attention to her own appearance (her mother used to say, “You can’t put a ribbon on a turd and call it a prize”), and it was nice to have someone look at her, really look at her, and express a preference. She liked being told what to wear. She liked looking in the mirror and seeing another woman, a better woman. Sometimes she disagreed with the small man’s suggestions, and when that happened, he would go into a long sulk, becoming petulant and touchy for days until Rachel went back to the store and exchanged the offending garment for the one he liked. He could be a very demanding small man, but he was tiny and harmless. 

In the evening, they ate plain unbuttered popcorn and watched movies. The small man had led a sheltered life and was easily shocked. He would not stand for graphic violence, sex, or foul language. He preferred classic films from the ’40s and ’50s in which young people fell in love at the state fair or tall men in cowboy hats saved small villages from bandits. He had a particular passion for musicals and would memorize the songs instantly. His voice was high-pitched but steady, and every night before bed, he serenaded Rachel with tunes from My Fair Lady and Oklahoma! This would often go on for hours, and although Rachel was flattered, sometimes she just wanted to be left alone. The small man hated alcohol, but Rachel discovered if she drank small sips of vodka very slowly, he would not notice. His singing would start to slur, and he would eventually fall asleep. In the morning, however, no matter how much alcohol she had consumed, he would wake her up at six, and they would do it all over again. 

After three weeks, Rachel was ready to return to work. Her time with the small man had been exciting at first, but she had grown weary of his constant demands. She didn’t blame him. After all, the small man had spent his entire life alone underneath a larger woman’s liver. He was bound to be a little needy and self-centered. But sharing one’s body with a tiny narcissist was exhausting, and Rachel was happy to have an excuse to ignore him. 

Or at least she tried to ignore him. Although Rachel repeatedly explained the nature and necessity of having a job to the small man, he could not grasp the concept, and on the first day of work, he called her a dozen times before noon asking to go shopping. Finally, she turned her cell phone off. The rest of the day was quite nice. Her coworkers asked about her surgery and complimented her repeatedly on her new clothes. Her supervisor said she was missed and gave her a lovely gift basket. At lunch, she found a nice bench outside in the sun and read a mystery novel while she ate her ham sandwich. 

When she got home, there were twenty-seven missed calls on her phone and twenty-seven messages. Before she could delete them, her phone buzzed. The small man was irate. How dare Rachel leave him alone all day? How dare she not return his calls? Didn’t she know that he had been worried about her? He had needs too. How could she be so selfish? Rachel was annoyed at first, but the small man sounded so concerned about her welfare, so despondent and lonely that she eventually apologized and agreed to watch The Sound of Music, a movie she had grown to loath. That night, she drank two vodka cranberries in quick succession, and they both passed out before the von Trapps could escape from the Nazis. 

To placate the small man, Rachel agreed to contact him every two hours while she was at work. This was difficult because he was not satisfied with a text or a quick hello. He insisted on a video chat so he could see her and went through a litany of questions about who she was talking to and what she was doing. In order to do this, Rachel had to lock herself in the bathroom for up to twenty minutes at a time, which strained her relationships with female coworkers and caused her supervisor to ask embarrassing questions about her digestive health. And in fact, this had been an issue of late. The small man had become even more finicky about his diet and had cut out carbohydrates and sugar, claiming they caused him to feel dizzy and bloated. Rachel had lost more than ten pounds since switching to mostly red meat as her primary source of protein, but her bowels had paid a price. She received many compliments, but her stomach was constantly in knots. 

The small man was surprisingly adept at technology. Somehow, he managed to get a credit card under her name and began ordering things online. It was fun at first, kind of like having Christmas every day. Rachel would come home from work and find a small pile of mystery presents waiting on her doorstep. The small man loved to watch her open the boxes, and he would squeal with delight every time she showed him what was inside, even though he was the one who purchased it. In the beginning, the items were cheap and useful–a package of ballpoint pens, a new toothbrush–but as the small man began exploring the world of online merchandise, his orders grew in size and price–flatscreen televisions, oil paintings of John Wayne, musical instruments she didn’t know how to play. She tried to send them back, but it was hard to keep up and some companies didn’t accept returns. She canceled his card, but he quickly obtained another. Soon she was thousands of dollars in debt. No matter how she tried to explain, the small man could not grasp the concept of money and continued to drive her into financial ruin. 

On the weekends, they resumed their routine, but the magic had passed for Rachel. She hated waking up at six and eating over-easy eggs. She despised anything related to baseball. Shopping had become a joyless act, and if she saw one more Danny Kaye musical number, she was going to scream. Every evening, she started drinking a little earlier and a little more, until finally she began bringing small bottles of vodka to work in her purse. The small man was much easier to deal with if they were both a little tipsy. As her anxiety increased so did her depression. She lost her appetite and would only eat when the small man demanded it. Sleep was impossible.

She tried removing the app and turning off her phone, but the small man had found her on social media, and when she didn’t talk to him directly, he posted on her Facebook and Twitter accounts relentlessly until she responded. He messaged her friends asking if she was in danger, and then they messaged her with embarrassing questions. Furthermore, his credit card purchases tripled when she was not talking to him. He had to be attended to constantly.

Rachel grew desperate. Her life hadn’t been perfect before the small man, but it had been hers. Now she was tired, sad, and somehow more lonely than ever. The small man had driven away all her friends and family. She cried at least ten times a day. She couldn’t remember the last time she sat down to enjoy a quiet moment to herself. 

And so, one day, without informing the small man, she returned to the hospital where she’d had the surgery and asked the doctor to remove him. 

“I cannot,” said the doctor.

“Why?” Rachel asked.

“Let me rephrase that. I will not without the gentleman’s consent.”

“I don’t understand. It’s my body, and I want him out of it.”

The doctor patted her on the head as though she was a child. “Now, let’s not get emotional about this. You have to remember it’s his body, too. He may be a small man but he is still a man, and he has rights.”

Rachel brushed away the doctor’s hand. “Will he die if you take him out?”

“No,” the doctor said. “We can arrange for him to be placed in an artificial environment where he could live quite comfortably. The issue is not scientific but legal and moral. Imagine if I came to your house and said you had to leave. How would you feel?”

Rachel started to argue that people were evicted from homes they didn’t own all the time, but the doctor stopped her. “I am sorry, ma’am, but I have already spoken to the hospital’s legal department about this issue and there is nothing I can do without a court order. I suggest you learn to live with the situation. Try to compromise, make him feel welcome.” 

“But he’s ruining my life,” Rachel insisted. “He wants to control everything I do. I can’t eat, I can’t sleep, I have credit card debt I can’t pay. You have to help me.”

“Has he hit you?”


“Has he kicked you?”

“Of course not.”

“Choked you, bit you, slapped you? Has he physically hurt you in any way?”

Rachel looked away.

He gave her a prescription for sleeping pills and a pamphlet titled Coping with a Codependent Partner. “If you need further advice, I suggest you contact a lawyer.” 

But the lawyer was equally unhelpful. She was a small, terse woman in a mottled brown blazer that the small man would have liked. She regarded Rachel over a pair of rectangular glasses. Since there was no legal precedent for a small adult human living inside a large adult human, the cost of such a case would be astronomical and the outcome uncertain. The small man was a legal citizen with rights protected by the government. He had broken no laws. He was not threatening Rachel’s physical health. Why should a judge force him to be removed from the only place he’d ever lived? The case would likely drag on for years, and the legal fees would be astronomical. Rachel had no money. So what was the point? And then there was the publicity to think about. Rachel’s face would be on every newspaper and website in the world. People would have opinions about her, strong opinions, opinions that would haunt her for the rest of her life. No, forced removal would be a certain failure. Therefore, if she wanted to avoid lifelong debt and social suicide, her best option was to talk to the small man and convince him to request his own relocation.

So Rachel contacted the small man to plead her case. She told him all about the procedure and reassured him that it was completely safe. She described the small man’s new home in great detail. She didn’t actually know where he would be living, but surely it must be better than on her liver.

“We would still be friends,” she explained. “Good friends. Better friends. You would just have your own place that’s all. Wouldn’t that be nice? A big giant room all your own with a bed and a couch and…and a widescreen television that you can watch your musicals on.”

“But Rachel,” squeaked the small man. “Who would read the sports section to me and take me shopping?”

“We do that on the phone, buddy. You can still call me every day, and we’ll do those things together. Nothing will change.”

“But if nothing is going to change, why should I bother moving? I’m comfortable here, Rachel. I know where everything is. You do a great job of taking care of me. This is my home.”

Rachel closed her eyes and wiped away angry tears. She could feel him moving around inside her, touching her organs with his tiny hands, absorbing her fluids, laying claim to her blood and bone and tissue.

She took a breath and continued in a chipper tone. “Because it’s my body. You can understand that, right? Everyone should get to control their own body. I don’t like waking up at six in the morning and eating over-easy eggs. I don’t enjoy baseball. I hate musicals. I want to wear sweatpants and drink milkshakes. I want my life back, buddy.”

There was a pregnant pause, and then the small man made a joyful sound. “Oh, I get it! Why didn’t you say something sooner?”

Rachel sighed. “Well, I didn’t want to offend you.”

“No, no, no. I’m not offended, you silly goose. Of course, you have needs and desires of your own. I should have known. Compromise is important in relationships. I have read all about these types of issues. How about this? You can sleep in until eight on the weekends, and I will let you choose one movie a week. PG of course. But that’s a definite no on the milkshakes. I have to put my foot down there because that’s a health issue. You understand that.”

“I don’t want to compromise,” Rachel hissed. “It’s my body. Mine. Don’t you get that? I shouldn’t have to ask what I can have for breakfast or when I can wake up. I should be able to do any fucking thing I want.”

“Rachel! Language!” The small man tutted his tongue. “You are obviously too emotional to talk about this logically right now. I think you should get a good night’s sleep, and we will discuss it in the morning when you are more rational. I think you will see that I am being more than fair.”

The small man hung up, and Rachel threw the phone across the room. She grabbed a carton of milk out of the refrigerator and drank half of it in greedy gulps, the white liquid spilling down the front of her shirt. She jumped up and down and pounded her stomach with her fists. She put on a very loud death metal song she knew the small man would hate and pushed her belly against the speaker. Her phone buzzed, but she ignored it. “Get out!” she screamed. “Get out of my body!” 

She felt a sharp pain in her stomach and doubled over. She punched her stomach, and the pain increased. The little bastard was kicking her insides. She marched into the kitchen and grabbed a bottle of vodka from the cupboard. She couldn’t go on like this. That much she knew. She took several long swigs. The pain in her stomach dulled a little. She opened the bottle of sleeping pills the doctor had prescribed and washed one down with vodka. She took another. And then another. There was no conscious plan in the act. She wanted the small man to sleep. She wanted him to leave her alone. She wanted some damn peace and quiet. She wanted him to die. The room blurred and began to spin. She drank some more. 

She had no idea how many pills she took before the vodka bottle was empty. The last thing she remembered before falling blissfully into the silent blackness was the sound of her cell phone buzzing and buzzing and buzzing.

She woke up in a hospital bed with a pounding hangover, and her first thought was one of hope. The small man was dead. If she had been hospitalized, there was no way he could have survived. It was a terrible thing, of course. It was always terrible when a life was lost. There would be consequences. The doctors would tell the police about the small man, and they would ask her questions. But they couldn’t prove she was trying to hurt him. She simply took too many sleeping pills. It was an accident. They might try to charge her with something, but it was worth it. She was finally free.

When the nurse entered the room, Rachel tried to sit up and realized for the first time that her arms and legs were strapped down. 

“Don’t strain yourself, honey,” said the nurse. “We got a three-hundred pound weight lifter strapped down like this in the next room. If he can’t get up, you ain’t going nowhere.”

The nurse informed her that she had been committed to the state mental hospital following her suicide attempt. She was so very lucky that the small man under her liver had sensed something was wrong and called 911 when she fainted. They pumped her stomach in the hospital before the sleeping pills could fully metabolize in her system. She was very fortunate to be alive. 

Rachel tried to tell her that it wasn’t a suicide attempt, but the nurse kept talking as though she hadn’t spoken. The doctors had determined she was suffering from stress, anxiety, and a form of schizophrenia she had never heard of. That was too bad. They would help her. Of course they would. Since she had no husband or next of kin, the hospital had given legal guardianship to the small man. They were able to communicate with him through his computer. 

“You’re lucky to have that little guy,” the nurse insisted. “He’s been fighting for you since you came in. Won’t leave the doctors alone. Insists you get special treatment.”

The nurse put a tray in front of her with a cup of black tea, a triangle of dry wheat toast, and two over-easy eggs. She turned on the television that was bolted to the wall, and Julie Andrews began singing “The Hills are Alive.”

Rachel stayed in the hospital for six months, and when she was finally released, her life was over. She had lost her job, her apartment, and her credit card debt had ballooned out of control. Several friends and coworkers sent her kind emails welcoming her home, but when she asked them for help, they made excuses and eventually stopped responding altogether. She checked into a halfway house and filed for bankruptcy. 

As her legal guardian, the small man had control over her bank accounts and could have her sent back to the mental hospital at any time. The doctors said it would be good for Rachel to establish routines. It was important that she wake up the same time every morning and eat a consistent breakfast and participate in healthy activities that she enjoyed. She needed a strong, stable figure in her life to lead her on the path to mental health. The small man said she was in good hands.

Eventually, Rachel was able to find a new job for much less pay and a subsidized apartment in a poverty-stricken neighborhood. The apartment was infested with cockroaches and there was no furniture, but these issues didn’t bother the small man. The first purchase he made was an earpiece to replace Rachel’s cell phone. He required her to wear it at all times, so he could be with her always. His voice filled her ear in the morning at breakfast. He spoke nonstop all day at work. And at night, he continued to sing songs from his favorite musicals. The small man’s words echoed through her head constantly, and over time Rachel lost track of her own inner voice. The narrative of her life had been hijacked, the story was no longer her own. Her passions and desires soon followed. She forgot that she didn’t like her eggs over easy and that she hated old musicals. It wasn’t necessarily that she started to like these things; it was more that she no longer had any personal likes or dislikes. Her life was a long, bland series of decisions made by someone else. She was no longer a person; she was a vessel. 

She woke up at six every morning and she ate eggs over easy and she read the sports page and she watched classic musicals. The small man had developed a taste for alcohol, so Rachel was allowed to drink as much as she liked. She drank and drank and drank. She walked up and down the streets talking to the small man in her head, and the children ran away from her, and their parents locked their doors, and the doctors told everyone she was fine, just fine. She was well known to the shop owners of the area, who would shake their heads when she came into their stores, wandering the aisles aimlessly, talking to herself and crying while she tried on clothes. 

The small man was very happy.

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!”

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