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Survival Soup

It’s hard to pick an origin point to the story you are living, so I’ll officially clock it at when the stay-at-home order began. The governor of Oregon declared a state of emergency six days ago. Of course, the virus was around much earlier than March. My wife, Lidia, and I think we had it in early February when we went on a book tour for her most recent collection of short stories. My wife’s symptoms started with chills, digestive distress, a fever, followed by vomiting. I found her on the floor of our DC Kimpton Hotel room after she passed out in the shower and managed to crawl to the middle of the tiled bathroom floor. She said she felt better in the morning. Since it was common get sick on a book tour, we went to the airport. On the plane, Lidia started feeling worse, and by the time we arrived back in Portland, the best we could do was rush her to bed where she stayed for five days, coughing through the night. I started coughing two days later. And so it went, both of us bedridden, coughing, only able to heat a can of soup every other day. By the time it passed I had lost ten pounds.

Not much has changed in our lives since the governor called the shelter-in-place order, except for the fact that our son’s university canceled face-to-face classes and moved everything online. We count ourselves lucky that the University of Oregon is only two hours south in Eugene. I drove down to pick Miles up, along with all of his belongings. He seemed happy to be coming home, but I suspect deep down he’s bummed to leave college life for his apartment in our basement. Lidia seems much more at ease now that she can watch over him. As far as we know he hasn’t caught the virus yet, so he is our motivation to stay vigilant.

Lidia used to joke about my survival soup. I would buy an extra can or two every time I’d go to the store after the presidency was stolen in 2016. Long before the fool was sworn in, I’d had a sinking feeling about what the future held. So, I bought soup. Also: survival food buckets, forty-two pound bags of sealed rice, bug out kits, LifeStraws, camping gear, twenty-five-gallon emergency water containers. Now, with the supermarket shelves dwindling, I don’t feel as silly as I once did. Somewhere in the depths of our basement there’s an emergency seed pack for planting a garden. I hope that the nurseries won’t be forced to shut down before I can buy vegetable starts, but at this point nothing would surprise me.

I’m pretty sure I look ridiculous; I was in need of a haircut when this all started, and now the hair on the back of my head is quite a bit longer than everywhere else. Soon I’ll have something like a mullet. When I strap the rubber bands on my N95 mask across the top and bottom of the back of my head… well, you get the picture. My main lament now is that I wasn’t quick enough to buy one of those cool, black N95 masks that make you look like a ninja or a Cobra Soldier from G.I. Joe.

You could say that I have trained for this pandemic all my life. I used to watch Thunder Cats and G.I. Joe after I’d ride the bus home from school, in Reno where I grew up. I’d let myself into an empty house, grab a Pop Tart, and turn on the three-channel, black-and-white TV in my room. After a couple hours, my second stepdad, Pidge, would come back from his temporary construction job. When I’d hear his truck coming down the street, I’d hoard some more snacks and then quietly lock myself away in my room for the remainder of the night. My own early quarantine.

Pidge’s real name was Robert but everyone called him Pidge. No one knew why. Maybe Pidge did and just wasn’t saying. In the end he would grow to embody the name Pidge more than he ever could “Robert.” My dad died when I was three. Before he died, he was a university professor recruited into the CIA. He was smart and ambitious, and his work took him away from his family for long stretches. I think we were planning on eventually moving to Langley to join him.

Pidge was severely underemployed. He’d do construction some summers and then he would winter on a broken-down loveseat set in front of a giant console television permanently tuned to ESPN. Pidge vicariously participated in NASCAR racing and golf tournaments while he pursued his true passion––drinking White Russians.

Pidge showed up on the couch in the family room one morning after my mom visited the Truckee River Raft Race. Pidge had a red pageboy haircut and a red handlebar mustache. He was an aging young stud in a ’70s Reno tank-top kinda way. In a little over three years, the love seat that my mother had bought new collapsed under the weight of him watching ESPN. After that, it had to be reinforced with a plywood plank under the cushion to support Pidge’s White Russian habit. The right arm of the chair quickly became threadbare and yellowed with nicotine from his endless Marlboro Lights.

Pidge had other talents as well. He’d croon down the hallways in our house doing a tipsy rendition of Bing Crosby, going Bo-Bo-Bobo-Booooo. Even at the age of ten I knew I was witnessing something gut-wrenchingly embarrassing, and yet he persisted in this behavior for years. When he’d pass through the hallway to the master bedroom to fall into his alcohol-induced slumber, I would sneak into the kitchen to forage. The Lazy Susan cabinet was usually stocked with Campbell’s Chunky soup for Pidge’s lunches. I’d eat it cold from the can with a spoon and turn on the TV at low volume to watch The Police on MTV.

It’s amazing what you can learn to accept if it takes place slowly: no more restaurants, all the bars shuttered, empty planes flying ghost routes over locked-down cities. It’s like the parable of how to boil a frog––if you throw him into a boiling pot he will jump out immediately, but if you put him in lukewarm water and then slowly turn up the heat, he’ll stay there, getting used to the incremental rate of his own demise.

Looking back now, a lot of my most impactful memories were perfectly framed. You had to hand it to my mother: she could frame a scene with the station wagon’s windshield. My sister, who was three years older than me, and I would look out through the glass, mesmerized by the impending drama. Like the time at Lucky Pete’s Bar when we witnessed my mom yanking a red-faced, drunk Pidge out of the bar’s back door by the arm. On the ride home we learned that our Mom had found Pidge declaring his love to a barfly. The image of her yanking his arm out of a rundown alley bar’s side door is one of the hundred most cinematic images I’ve witnessed in my life. He was surprised and embarrassed, and so off-kilter that I felt a tinge of empathy, a small but sudden twisting of the gut. Pidge woke up in the garage, in the back seat of the station wagon later that night. He staggered to the door connecting the garage with the main house. He put his fist through it with one swift blow.

Day 9. The government says that there are enough supplies and that the supply chain is working overtime to deliver goods and food to the stores, but I don’t believe them. If you turn on the television there are still commercials interrupting the news––people living happy normal lives, attending concerts, throwing picnics in the park with friends. It’s like being an archeologist, looking through the artifacts of a long-dead culture. The government says that we should be able to leave lockdown in a couple weeks as the infection rate skyrockets and the death rate climbs. What the government isn’t saying is that it won’t take much now to tip us over the edge. A cyber attack would be enough to start Mad Max-style supply runs on the grocery stores.

The Celebrity Apprentice president sugarcoats the death toll, saying there will only be two hundred thousand dead, and if it weren’t for his “action” there would have been many more millions. For the moment his ignorance has been overshadowed by science and what the doctors are saying, but I’m sure it will be temporary because it will be paramount for him to control the TV once again––this I learned from Pidge. Last month he said that there were only ten cases in the US and pretty soon that would go down to zero. He says whatever he wants to say. America has had a series of “fathers,” too. Some decent, most not.

Day 12. The vibe at the grocery store today was a bit more hostile. At least five people bumbled into my personal space. One shelf stocker who I had never seen before walked so close to me that I could smell his breath. He did this three times in three different aisles. There were a lot more masks this time, too: surgical masks and N95 masks, bandanas, and one guy was even wearing a painting ventilator. Nobody gave him a second look. I remember when this thing first started and people looked at those who wore masks at the grocery store with disdain. Weren’t we overreacting?

One day Pidge wasn’t Bo-BoBobo-ing down the hallway. Instead he was outside the sliding glass door making a big, lonely drama on the picnic table. It was like someone had died. He puffed on a cigarette, blew out the smoke followed by a weighty, existential sigh. I couldn’t figure it out, this drama framed by the sliding glass door. My mom entered the kitchen in her robe.

She grabbed a cup of coffee and said, “It’s his birthday, and nobody got him anything.”

She walked her cup back down the hall towards her bedroom. I stood there watching him for a minute more, wallowing in the pain and realization that his life had no meaning. Then I walked back to my mattress on the floor of my bedroom. I lay down and heard the sounds of a minor league ball game happening a few blocks away. The announcer’s voice was just out of range so I heard the sounds of speaker-voices more than distinct words. Then there was a crack of a wooden bat and it was loud for a second, then faded. I started thinking that someday there might be a world outside the world I was trapped in, where things were good and stepfathers didn’t go all gooey when no one ended up liking them. Needless to say, I raised myself. I was my own father.

Pidge’s true love was his Great Dane, who he named Cassandra. He’d talk baby talk to Cassandra in between drags off his Marlboro Lights. He wouldn’t talk to me, which was probably for the best. The dog had to be locked inside during the day because she would run around the backyard barking her head off at nothing, hour after hour, until finally the neighbors complained and we got a citation from the city. Years later, when Pidge and my Mom took off for a California vacation instead of attending my college graduation from University of Nevada – Reno, I took Cassandra running, since I was watching the house. After the ceremony when I walked out of the sports arena alone, among a sea of families taking group pictures, I spotted one of my friends, Stan. We grabbed a six-pack and headed back to my mom’s house for a kind of celebration. After we got back the dog was having trouble breathing so I dropped her off at the vet. One of her lungs had collapsed, requiring extensive surgery, and Pidge and my Mom had to cut their trip to California short.

I escaped to Italy a month later, leaving Reno behind me. When I returned to the states to visit years later, Pidge was gone. Five years after that my mom told me that Pidge had died. His lung cancer spread to the rest of his body. She visited him in the hospital, but he died alone. I don’t know what happened to his dog.

I flew down to Las Vegas to pick up a puppy in anticipation of a shelter in place order; one was implemented days after I made it back. There was still a sense of normalcy at the airport in Portland, and very few masks. Almost no one was wearing one on the plane, either, but this didn’t stop me from donning mine. I sat staring out my window at a landscape of clouds. From time to time I’d wave off the flight attendant who was trying to bring me water or coffee. The man in the row in front of me coughed and everyone seemed to go a little rigid. I could see the flight attendants in the front rubbing their hands with hand sanitizer.

Lidia and Miles gifted me a puppy for Christmas. Both of our dogs had died of old age the year before, and their absence created a giant hole in our home. In early March I bought a four-week-old Dutch Shepherd from a family friend who we knew were breeders. We didn’t get a puppy because of the pandemic. Instead, I went and picked the dog up despite what was happening. Landing in Vegas was a bit surreal. The governor of Nevada had shut down all the bars, restaurants, and casinos the day before. The entire heart of the state stopped, its employees dismissed. I was grappling with the impossibility of this reality as I walked towards rental car signs in McCarran Airport, past the electronic slot machines flashing “NOT IN SERVICE” notices across their screens. At the rental lot, the woman let me pick any car I wanted; after all, it really didn’t matter. No one was coming to Vegas any time soon, and no one was keeping track. I surmise that after the apocalypse the survivors in America will be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of choice at places like RV sales lots and major metropolitan rental car garages. They won’t be able to find toilet paper, but finding a SUV with leather interior will be a breeze.

It’s been thirteen days since the declaration of the crisis. I had stomach cramps earlier in the day and yesterday I had extremely low energy. They say that we will hit the peak of infections in the next two weeks, and all in all we’re doing pretty well as a family. Lidia and I did have a fight last night, which was also our son’s birthday. Let’s face it; I ruined it for him. I’ve become the cook, mainly because Lidia has a deadline for her new novel and it’s one of the last big chunks of change on the horizon. It’s an old agreement: one of us fills in for domestic duties when the other is pressed by a project or work, but now pretty much everything has been canceled. Lidia and I both come from rough beginnings. Sometimes it feels like we hold things together with spit and duct tape. Anyway, I bought a cheesecake at the grocery store and cooked mozzarella-stuffed burgers with pesto sauce and potato wedges for Miles’s birthday dinner. I cooked them a little longer than I normally would because Lidia has a sensitive stomach. I served them while the news flashed pictures of refrigerator trailers and body bags. We all sat on the couch watching. Lidia took her plate back into the kitchen. I heard the microwave open and the beeping buttons. It was irrational, but this really got to me, after all the cooking and solo scavenging out in the wasteland. I snapped out something like, why don’t you just throw it in the trash, and then it was on. If you start a fight with Lidia, you can be sure she’ll finish it. I poured myself another glass of wine. I was angry. It spilled over, and the next thing I knew I was asserting my righteousness. Miles pleaded for me to stop, and then he too got angry. There was storming out of the room, only to reenter to say “one last thing.” In the end I asked if anyone wanted to cut the cake, but things had gone too far for cake that night. In the morning I felt like shit, so the stomach cramps were possibly psychosomatic due to my personal failings—or maybe they were lingering COVID-19 symptoms like I’ve read about.

Day 14. I went to the supermarket at 8 a.m. on Palm Sunday. My working theory, based off the last time I was able to buy toilet paper, was that the store took advantage of their early closure on Saturday night to stock for the following week, and I was right. The paper aisles were half-full of the large bonus packs of soft, three-ply tissue, and although we didn’t really need it, I grabbed a giant eight-pack of Bounty paper towels, too. I found other things as well: a twenty-pound bag of rice, a selection of survival soup, non-generic pasta, wine, meat, cheese. Pulling into our garage I felt something like successful hunter-gatherers must have felt after driving a herd of woolly mammoths over the edge of a cliff. Shifting the car into park, I reenacted my new ritual: squirt a large glob of hand sanitizer in the middle of your left hand, smear it all over your palms and the back of the hands and while your hands are still wet with alcohol, wipe down the car’s start button and gear shift, and then finally leave a wet smear across the steering wheel before you get out and unload.

Day 17. I’ve planted a victory garden of sorts. I think depression is setting in. I want to go back to bed, but I don’t. Things need to get done. The other day Miles helped me struggle with a section of rain spout that I cut and diverted to a new fifty-five-gallon rain barrel. It should have been a simple job but the house painters didn’t secure the spout to the gutter the year before and the whole thing came down. Miles thinks it’s great that I can water my garden with the runoff, but I know we can also use it to drink in an emergency with a LifeStraw.

I only have one memory of my father, Kent. I was three and he had me on his lap as he drove our VW bus. With my hands on the wheel, he let me steer. We drove that way down the street until we came to the parking lot we were supposed to turn into. He told me that he’d “take it from here” and then took back the wheel. Then, he was gone.

It’s been two months since the lockdown was declared. Almost everyone is wearing masks at the supermarket now, even the bearded men wearing camo jackets, but when I watch the news I see Captain Chaos refusing to wear a mask and I fear that like everything, even common decency will become politicized in the weeks to come. I’m attempting to construct a vertical potato planter. Like most of my wood work, it’s not quite straight, but to be honest, I don’t think it needs to meet code if all it has to do is hold soil and potatoes. Each box can grow around one hundred pounds of potatoes. I’ve always resisted planting potatoes because they take up valuable space and have always been abundant and cheap. When I look at the news lately I see thousands lining up for food bank handouts in Texas and Arizona. In the Congo there are riots in the streets with people fighting over food aid shipments. I’ve read somewhere that at least one billion people on the planet will be forced into starvation and this scares me. So I’ll build more potato boxes, maybe five in total. Five hundred pounds. That can be replanted again in August. For a house of three people.

I have a confession to make: I think I may have gone overboard with the rice. I did an inventory and suddenly there’s two hundred pounds of it stacked in bags on shelves and in plastic bins. I’ve had to start moving our nonperishables into the deepest basement storage rooms to maximize space. Miles thinks this is amusing and asks if I’m becoming one of “those people.” Usually I’d feel a little silly, but then my mind wanders again to the fool in the White House and the gut-wrenchingly embarrassing—and deadly—scenarios that may yet unfold.

The good news is that the nurseries didn’t end up shutting down and I was able to buy all the starts I needed: peppers, cukes, zukes, beans, peas, potatoes, and, most importantly, tomatoes. I have eight tomato plants this year in half whiskey barrels. While I throw the ball to the puppy, I move from plant to plant flicking tomato blossoms with my index finger, simulating the type of vibration a bee would make. Tomatoes self-pollinate so it’s the vibration that causes the pollen to fall down into the flower and set the fruit. This technique is said to double your yield, but we’ll see. Regardless, there will be a ton of tomatoes this year. When I lived in Italy I learned to make gazpacho. A family of three could live off it all summer, if necessary.

Like many in his generation, Miles declined to learn how to drive, which is in stark contrast to both Lidia and me: we were driving away from home as soon as we got our licenses. Every day of high school, I woke up early to drive Miles in. First thing he’d do when we got in the car was sync the Bluetooth with his phone so we could listen to his music. In the middle of his senior year I could feel the nostalgia on the horizon. How he’d gather up his bags and tell me he loved me. How I’d tell him to have a good day, and that I loved him. He’d shut the car door and walk off toward the Arts building and I’d drive away, his Bluetooth signal breaking up his music into slow silence the farther apart we grew. I was always there at the other end of the day, parked on a street next to the Max station, ready to pick him up and take him back home.

***

Rumpus original art by Zach Swisher.



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