He was a good boy. Did his chores without prompting. Loved his mama and daddy. Listened and more or less obeyed when big people spoke. He was a tidy child. Washed his hands and brushed his teeth with hardly any cajoling. Kept his room clean. Put his washed laundry away in an orderly system of his own devising, underwear with the pj’s, never with the socks. He was a beautiful boy. Soft curls and large eyes. Radiant health. Capable hands and sturdy legs. Supple smiles. He was generally happy.
Since coming into his own selfhood, he had learned a great many things from his mama. He could read most words and wrote his name in firmly individual letters. He could count for as long as anyone chose to listen. He could do sums and understood the nature of less than zero, how those numbers sucked things up like the black holes he so loved hearing about. And though he knew most of the books by heart, he truly loved when his mama read to him. Books about stars and quasars and other barely imaginable things. Books about fairies and talking animals and other things perfectly imaginable but somehow not quite as real as quasars — though dwarves showed up in both worlds so perhaps they were real.
He learned about sameness and difference from his daddy. How those with big satiny cars were the same as him though they may not look it. How those who stood on the other side of the plexiglass at the food store were different.
He knew that there was a difference between talking and having a discussion. Lately there had been little talking and many discussions. Usually ending abruptly whenever he asked a question.
For as long as he could remember he had lived in his home. There was a back yard with a swing and a slide, both of which seemed to be getting smaller these days. There was a garden with mama’s flowers and daddy’s tomatoes. His house had eight real rooms and two bathrooms plus the smelly basement and the car garage and the place at the top of the pull-down steps where all the decorations lived in plastic tubs. His own room was next to the upstairs bathroom. There were glow-in-the-dark stars on the walls and ceiling around his bed. He helped put them there. All his furniture was arranged the way he liked it — bed by the window, dresser by the closet door (which must remain cracked not closed), toy chest and bean bag chair in the middle of the rug. The bathroom had a shiny blue octopus in the bathtub and taps that were shaped like shells. He was unsure of his feelings about the octopus, though he did like to whisper the scientific name to himself while bathing. Cephalopod felt exciting in his mouth.
For a long time, he and his daddy and mama all lived in the house together all the time. There was a room for everybody during the day. Daddy worked in the small bedroom that didn’t have a bed. Mama had a desk in her craft room, but she usually brought her computer into the family room so he could play nearby while she clicked rapidly on the keyboard and talked to other people through the screen. Sometimes he talked to his grandparents through her screen, but that was mostly after dinner.
There were trips in the car now and then. He seemed to remember doing that more when he had to ride in a car seat. Since he got to sit in just the booster in back there hadn’t been as many places to go. He wasn’t sure if those two things were related.
He remembered a place where other kids played with him and where they got to eat lunch off a tray and where there was nap time and craft time and juice time and story time and time out and such a lot of other things that never seemed to happen anymore. He sort of liked that place. But only sort of. Because his mama never stayed in that place with him. She would give him a kiss and leave, and it was a long time before she came back, and she was usually tired when she did. She wasn’t tired like that now, and she didn’t leave him, and he couldn’t even remember where that place was now. Those memories were a bit fuzzy. Perhaps he just dreamed that place.
Nobody wore a mask at that place, so maybe it wasn’t real. Because everybody wore masks. Even his daddy. Some masks were a little scary. Most were just boring blue paper things. Some were really funny though. His mama made him a mask that made him look like a puppy and one that had a big red clown smile over his mouth and one that had little stars all over it. At the food store, the boys who did the bags and carts had big plastic hoods that made them look sort of like space-men. He asked his mama if she could make one like that for him, but she didn’t think she could because she didn’t know where to buy the plastic.
His mama wore pretty masks that matched her clothes. His daddy wore black ones. He couldn’t tell when his daddy was smiling anymore.
He didn’t like wearing his mask in the summer. It was so hot. The mask would smell like bad breath and make him cranky. So he often just put it around his left ear and let it dangle there. But this was ok because there was less going out anyway, and as long it was just them they didn’t need a mask except when the food delivery people showed up. And he didn’t go near those people anyway. So he wasn’t too sad when his daddy said it was ok to not wear the mask anymore. Though when his mama took him to the food store they still put the masks on. He thought this might be because his mama made such nice masks that she liked wearing them and liked it when he wore his. So he put it on to make her happy. And anyway, many of the people in the food store still had on masks too — including the space-men. He always wore his star mask so he could be sort of like the space-men. In case any of them were actually really real space-men living deep under cover.
One morning after the fireworks day, his daddy got up early in the morning, put on real pants, took his computer out of the smallest bedroom and went to work someplace else. He did not wear a mask. The boy vaguely remembered that this happened before. He sort of remembered that his daddy would be back at dinnertime, but still he was distressed. What if daddy didn’t come back this time? What if he just kept working wherever he was until late at night like he usually did in the smallest bedroom without the bed? The boy cried.
It took three story books and a picture book on the solar system (the one with the moving planets and little doors in the pages with secret answers to important questions) to calm him down. His mama told him that everything would be just fine. Daddy would come home. Daddy would be back for dinner. Daddy would not work until so late at night that he forgot to come home and stayed wherever he was forever. He might not even work as much as he had been working. In fact, the smallest bedroom might be getting a bed.
It wasn’t even night yet when his daddy came home. It was still light out. They had noodles for dinner, the ones that came stuffed into little white boxes. He loved those boxes. He was not as fond of the black slippery things that came in the noodles, but if he slurped them up really quickly he couldn’t feel the slimy on his tongue. After dinner, when he had brushed his teeth free of all the black stuff and put on his Jedi pajamas, his daddy surprised him by coming into the bedroom and picking up the chapter book his mama was reading to him at bedtime. Then he and his daddy sat on the tiny bed, squeezed together, and read about the Hundred Acre Wood. The boy liked the stories about Eeyore best, but he kept that to himself.
The next day, his daddy left for work again and came home again in the evening. His mama worked on her computer all day. They had pizza for dinner. Mama read the chapter book at bedtime. Soon, it was the weekend when nobody did any work except for a bit here and there and maybe just a couple messages and sometimes edit the budget report and sometimes submit the big proposal and so on. But it wasn’t really real work because there weren’t people talking on the computer screens and most of the day both mama and daddy didn’t even get dressed.
And so it went for many days and many weekends. Daddy would go to work. The boy and his mama would stay at home and do things. Sometimes they went out to do things, but mostly it was just daddy who left and came back.
But then one weekend was different. One weekend when it was almost September, they all got in the car and went to buy school supplies. The boy was excited to go to a store, even if he had to wear his mask in the heat. He was even more excited to find out that the school supplies were his. He got to pick out fat crayons and yellow pencils and a glue stick and colored markers and a Wookiee backpack to hold it all. He was only mildly bothered by the smelly hand sanitizer that was on the requirements list, and he was perplexed by the large boxes of tissues that went into his pack with the rest of his supplies. It wasn’t until later that evening, when he was playing with all his new things on his bedroom floor, that his daddy came in and explained that the supplies were for school, not for home, and school would be starting in another week or so. The boy would be going to kindergarten. He couldn’t quite wrap his mouth around that word, nor his head around the idea of going somewhere to school, nor being around other people than his mama and daddy. All day long. People that might be different.
The next week was not a good one. There were many hissing discussions when they thought he was not listening. He heard his name followed by words like “coddling” and “over-protective” and “getting to lead a normal life” countered by “too early” and “delta variant” and “unvaccinated”. He heard shouting a couple times and once saw tears on his mama’s face when she came in to read at bedtime. When he asked what was wrong, she smiled and said that she was just a bit sad that he was getting so big so fast. He thought this was fair. His Jedi pajamas were getting uncomfortably short.
On Friday, he and his mama went to meet his new teacher, Ms Bailey. His teacher was wearing a puppy mask very much like the one his mama made for him. He was both excited and a bit nervous because they matched. But he got to see his classroom and choose a cubby for his things. He inspected the art corner easels and approved of the colorful aprons to be worn over his clothes to keep the finger paints off his special T-shirts. He sat in one of the funny chairs without legs in the story corner and ran his fingers over the wide shelf of picture books, happy that he knew so many of them already. He got to show Ms Bailey how he could write his name. He discovered chalk.
When Ms Bailey asked if he wanted to come back and play next week, he allowed that maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing.
The weekend was hot. Again. They didn’t do very much. There were supposed to be grilled sandwiches and maybe homemade ice cream in the machine that looked very much like a droid. But it was “too hot to fire up the grill” and the ice cream maker needed cleaning and nobody seemed much in the mood to do that. So they watched movies instead. Which might have been a mistake. When he asked why nobody in the movie was wearing a mask, his daddy gave his mama a mad look and then got up and went to the bathroom for a long time. This was not too unusual but it was still unsettling. Daddy missed the crucial resolution where everything is explained. Except the masks.
He started school on Wednesday. He was nervous and didn’t want to let go of mama’s hand, but then Ms Bailey started talking about the Andromeda galaxy. Just like that, he found himself steered into his classroom and seated among many other masked, nervous-looking kids, waiting to see what school would be like and whether it was worth being away from home.
And it turned out to be a pretty good day. He met many new people. He painted a quasar with a space-man standing on it. He wrote his name five times. He learned lots of neat new instructions and rules, like “criss cross applesauce” and raising your hand to ask a question and the distance to the bathroom and that the bathroom did not contain one cephalopod. Not of any color. Nor a bathtub for that matter.
He had so much to tell his mama when she came to pick him up that he stumbled over the words as they all tried to get out at once. And then he coughed. Just a little. Behind his mask.
The next day he didn’t feel great, but he was too excited by school to pay much attention to the inside of his throat. He got to be lunch leader because his last name began with A. He made a model of Saturn out of some clay and yarn and found a butterfly chrysalis in the outdoor classroom. He was so bouncy that he didn’t even notice how hot he felt.
On Friday, he woke up before it was light out. He was hot and sweaty and everything in his whole body hurt. He tried to get up and get ready for another fun day of school, but he fell onto the rug and couldn’t get back up again. He became scared and started crying. And then he started coughing.
“Three days into the school year, Waterbury elementary school was put under home quarantine, with over two dozen active cases. Five children and two staff members were hospitalized with severe symptoms. One child is confirmed dead. Automatic contact tracing has related this school’s outbreak to the outbreak in the One City Center building late last month. Next up: labor shortages in retail and service positions are slowing the economic recovery in…”
©Elizabeth Anker 2021