The stasis of family life can sometimes seem unbearable. We make origami shapes of our hearts, folding ourselves smaller and smaller to not offend the other. It’s a sad spectacle for the kids to watch, even if they half understand it.
“Is Covid worse than cancer?”
“I’ve been thinking a lot about that,” she says. “I think it is.”
“When you had cancer we could form a bubble and get away from it. With Covid the bubble is the prison.”
“It’s worse if everyone has cancer.”
This is the hardest part of winter. Two weeks of below zero weather. I put on the gear and I grind it out. There are a lot of sick calls, but I don’t get unhinged about it. It’s the same shit every year. With all the quarantines, it’s amazing things have held together for so long. No one wants to work when it’s like this and many don’t. Somehow the mail gets delivered anyway. I’m coming up on my fifteenth year as a letter carrier in Minneapolis. I figure I’m halfway to retirement.
We are fishing water shallow enough to see the bottom. The boy is catching green, orange-bellied perch. They’re not much bigger than fish sticks, but the constant action leaves him ecstatic. He is better at hooking them than I am because he stares down into the hole. Wily critters, by the time you feel them they have already spat out the jig. I raise the teardrop up and let it flutter down. Out of nowhere. I see the unmistakable stripes of a juvenile tiger muskie. The snake-like fish darts in and clobbers my minnow. He takes my drag and I know there is little chance the predator’s razor teeth won’t sever my four-pound test monofilament line.
“HOLY SHIT! IT’S A MUSKIE!”
A father is licensed to swear when there is a muskie involved. It’s Sunday and this is a holy ghost sort of moment we’re experiencing together inside our heated pop-up shelter.
“I see him! I see him!” the boy yells.
I loosen the drag and the line breaks. I reel up nothing. The fish is gone. I hold myself blameless. Without a leader, there was nothing I could do.
We fish a while longer and the perch bite dies off. At last, we fold up everything and stow our gear in sleds. I notice a white-bearded old man smiling admiringly at us from a nearby bucket and hole. We pull the sleds across the lonely expanse of snow toward a bank of cattails. I’m feeling pride in my eldest son. It’s good to have him out here in the elements drilling holes after he’s been a prisoner of his room, staring at a computer screen all week long.
At the car, I get an unexpected call informing me that Emily has shattered her wrist ice skating and has been taken to the ER. This isn’t welcome news, but I take in the information calmly. I’m assured my youngest son is playing comfortably at the neighbor’s house. As I empathize with my wife’s suffering, I’m flashing back to the trauma and helplessness I experienced in junior high breaking my own arm in a track accident. Also, I’m ticked because all she had to do was watch Theo for a couple of hours and the thought of shouldering all the household chores for the next month is overwhelming.
“What hospital is she at?”
The neighbor tells me but says not to go there. Visitors aren’t allowed.
“Is that because of Covid?” I inquire angrily.
Of course, it’s because of Covid. I tell her I’m loading the car and will be home in forty-five minutes. I explain the situation to Miles.
“It’s lucky she didn’t break both arms,” I say and slam the trunk closed.
I’m parked in the bike lane on eighth street, the flashers going. A police squad car is just up from me in front of the 330 building. The two white cops have been waiting outside for almost ten minutes. I decide to help them out. Maybe I’m moved by all the Super Bowl commercials about “coming together.” They stare at me suspiciously as I approach with both hands in my coat pockets.
“If you like, I can let you into the building,” I say.
“Sure, that would be great.” The officer’s tone is sarcastic.
I don’t envy him. I open up the key keeper to the building. Just as I’m about to stick the key in the lock, the door is pushed open by a resident. I leave quickly, continuing my route elsewhere. On a variety of apps it will be reported in real time that I allowed them into the building.
Later, with the rest of the route completed, I try to finish up the block. A bevy of cop cars are there now. The street and sidewalk are cordoned off with yellow caution tape. One of the police officers has a machine gun strapped to his back. From my phone, I learn that a resident has been accused of firing a gun inside his apartment and will not come out to talk to the police. The situation has become a standoff. I leave the condominiums across the street undelivered, scan the packages “no access” and continue with my day hoping it all works out.
I stare at a field of white. Every few seconds a pale-yellow cross flashes. I press my game show button. Sometimes the flashes come quickly and sometimes there is a long pause. I get nervous, a little sweaty. These must be the flashes that I cannot see. My impulse is to cheat. Oftentimes ok, the flashes on the periphery are so faint that I’m not even sure.
Abe, the technician, guides me to another room. I carry my coat with me. It is very awkward not knowing where to place it and having to ask. This makes me feel like an idiot. All the optometry people are a bit uptight. This guy seems like a hipster. I suspect that he might be gay, not that it matters. He mentions that I’m not wearing the Danish frames he sold me.
“I just wear them at home,” I say. “They fog up with the masks.”
There’s something distinctly Orwellian about going to the eye doctor.
“Have you been tested with this machine,” he asks.
“I think I would remember the Octospeculous.”
He chuckles. “Yes, the Octospeculous is an experience not soon forgotten.”
I prepare myself to be slimed by eight mechanical tentacles wrapped around my face.
Abe uses an alcohol pad to wipe off the areas of the machine that my skin will contact.
“We’re going to take an actual picture of your optic nerve.”
Gazing into the viewfinder, I see two veiny orbs that must be my eyeballs–blue circles and lava. Abe adjusts the dials of the machine.
“Look here. Look there,” he says. “Good.”
I’m told to wait for the doctor. At least fifteen minutes tick by. I am not good at waiting. No one shakes hands anymore, but the physician immediately asks about Emily’s broken arm. The accident had just happened before my last appointment. It felt like oversharing at the time, but I’m touched that he remembers. He confides that his mother broke her foot recently stepping out of the bathtub. The doctor is chatty and makes a lot of eye contact, which I find uncomfortable because he is wearing a mask. The eyes convey almost nothing. The tone of voice is there, but I fixate on the paper mask and his blue eyes seem cold. Most facial expressions are communicated through our mouths. It would be comforting for someone to admit this is dehumanizing.
“Well, you definitely have glaucoma.”
He pauses a long while. I guess there is an expectation that this diagnosis will rattle me, but it doesn’t. It took a ridiculous number of appointments to arrive at this inevitability. I have all my mother’s diseases now, which is just fine since she is a very healthy woman. I will have to take drops every day. And I need to come back in two weeks to have my eye pressures checked. It is not in my nature to go to this many doctor’s appointments, but I play along. It would really suck to retire, finally have time to read, and not be able to because I was blind.
I spend Valentine’s Day cleaning the house. Governor Waltz has allowed the restaurants to reopen at fifty percent capacity, but we don’t even try to find a table. How could we ever hire a sitter? It’s all a lost year. That evening there’s a double homicide in the parking lot of the boys’ destined high school. My wife and I are back to perusing the real estate apps for bigger homes in the suburbs.
On February 22nd, I escort both children out to the bus stop. It’s cold as hell and I have my bib coveralls on. I make small talk with the people who live across the street. Their son shares my older boy’s class. I compliment him on his fresh haircut. The yellow bus is predictably fifteen minutes late but, at last, it comes. I watch them all get on feeling relieved. This moment has been a long time coming but it seems like everyday life. When my son’s fifth grade class is released outside for recess, he and four other children immediately form a circle–hands held, masked faces uplifted toward the sun. It takes a long moment before they hear the teacher’s disapproving voice and scatter joyously on the playground.