Snakebit

Long Short Story by Francois Bereaud

Snakebit

As Zach flew over the handlebars of his mountain bike, his body a rigid missile parallel to the ground, he figured it’d be bad. He’d been going pretty fast. On the good luck side, nothing too serious broke save a couple of ribs – those hurt like a mother, though. On the bad luck side, he landed next to a rattler who promptly bit him in the shin. He hollered to holy hell, rousting a couple of homeless guys who had been squatting peacefully not ten yards from the trail. A small but vigorous debate ensued.

“You gotta suck it out.”

“That’s bullshit. Old wives tales or whatnot. Just call 911.”

“I did that. But it may take ‘em a bit. I think we gotta suck it out. Look at those puncture marks.”

“Then you suck it out. I ain’t putting my lips on some guy’s leg.”

Zach, being the guy, thought he should weigh in on this grand dispute, but he was in way too much pain to talk and passed out right after hearing the comforting sounds of sirens.

Zach came to, or half came to, in some hospital or clinic or wherever they take people with no insurance. His vision was cloudy but he did see a needle in his arm which scared him. The needle triggered the tragic memory of a buddy with a heroin problem. But any worry about the needle was short-lived as he had the unfortunate need to breathe. Best he could describe the pain later would be someone running a crochet needle through each of his ribs and straight into his lungs. He screamed. A small nurse with a clipboard rushed in the room.

“Maria. Maria Cuevas,” Zach stammered. Then he passed out again.

The next time he was conscious, Zach figured it was quite a bit later as the room was almost dark. He remembered he didn’t want to look at his arm and that breathing was a bad idea, so instead he turned his head slightly to the left. There was a human sitting in a chair next to his bed, her face slightly lit by the glow of her phone. The outline of her frizzy hair gave her away. Maria. He grunted. Then suppressed a scream. She looked up.

“Am I dying?”

She stood up and put her face to his. Her hair fell across his and her honey shampoo filled his nostrils. He was almost happy until he realized she hadn’t answered him. So he asked again. She lifted her head and looked at him; in this light her dark brown eyes looked black.

“Jesus, Zach, you really did a number on yourself, but, no, you are definitely not dying.” He felt her fingers on his arm, exhaled, and let out a small cry. She pursed her lips and looked sad. He thought he should comfort her but he couldn’t shed his own anxiety about his condition.

“What about the snake? Did they figure out I was bit by a rattler?”

Maria smiled. “That’s the least of your worries. It bit you in your bony shin so it wasn’t deep at all. They gave you anti-venom and you’ve had no bad reactions to it so you should be fine there.”

“That sounds good. What about –” Zach looked down and winced again.

“You broke three ribs pretty badly but didn’t puncture a lung. It’s good news, but it’s going to hurt and take some time to heal. You’ll have to put that surfing career on hold. How did this happen anyway? It’s not like you to fall.”

That was true. It wasn’t like Zach to fall. He’d spent his teenage years on a skateboard and six months into his California residency, he’d shown great promise as a surfer and a mountain biker, mountains and surf not being prevalent on the panhandle of Florida where he’d grown up. Truth was, he’d gotten a text on that downhill stretch and had pulled his phone out of his pocket to check it. Stupid, but he’d bid on a big job, 5000 square-foot remodel in La Jolla, and was expecting an answer. Coulda been a game changer. He’d had enough time before being airborne to see that it was his mom and not the client. He wasn’t ready to admit any of this to Maria so he nodded and changed the subject.

“Where am I, anyway? And how’d you find me here?”

“UCSD hospital in Hillcrest. They’re the best for snakebites. Your nurse – she’s awesome by the way so be nice to her – found me on Facebook. You woke up and said my name. You had no ID on you so you were a John Doe.”

This was a lot of information to process and Zach had trouble knowing where to start.

“I’m always nice,” he said defensively, even though it was mostly true. “Facebook? She found you on Facebook. There’s gotta be a lot of Maria Cuevas’ on there?”

“Twenty-seven at last count. I have still a picture of us on my profile. She sent me a friend request and here I am.”

Zach felt irrationally happy at this news. They’d broken up, or rather she had decided they needed to take a break, a few weeks ago but he was still squatting on her couch, being in a state of underemployment. Last week, she’d given him a two-week ultimatum saying his presence was impinging on her sex life, a comment he hoped was fabricated to hurt. Which it did. She worked all the time. Where would she have found time to get a new boyfriend? Of course, you didn’t need a boyfriend to have sex … Zach had tried to push that thought away.

“She does sound awesome. Did she tell you what this is?” Zach pointed his nose down his arm.

“Standard IV. Hydration and pain medication.” Maria’s voice became more work-like and Zach knew she’d be leaving soon. She leaned over and kissed him on the forehead. “I had Alex cover the beginning of my shift, but he can’t stay so I gotta get to the bar. They want you here overnight for observation and will release you in the morning if all is good. I’ll come get you around ten. This doesn’t change anything about us but I’m going to help you through this.”

She bent down again and Zach took in more honey. He felt small and exhausted. Then she was gone. Before he could drift off again, the nurse was in.

“Hello, Zachary, I’m Nurse Stephanie. I see that Maria came to visit. I need to check your vitals. How’s the pain? I can adjust the drip if you like.”

No one other than his grandmother called him Zachary, but Nurse Stephanie was too friendly to be bothered by that detail. He tried to smile but that hurt. “The pain is pretty bad. I’m kind of afraid of medicine but if you think it’s okay, I maybe could use more.”

“Sure, dear, nothing to be afraid of. Let me push it up a bit.” Nurse Stephanie fiddled with something on the IV. He smelled jasmine, her shampoo undoubtedly. “You’ll feel some relief. I’m going to take your temperature in your ear and then I’ll need your wrist for your pulse. I have some questions for you but they can wait. You look like you need to sleep more.” Which he did.

Later, at what he figured had to be two or three in the morning, Zach entered consciousness with the urgent need to pee. He wondered how that was accomplished and looked around for a call button. For the first time, he noticed a table next to him with a Styrofoam cup and straw. Though it seemed irrational to drink with his bladder full, he did and the ice water felt great. Next to the cup was a zip-lock bag with his affairs. Cell phone, house key, and two cough drops. Though he had generally adjusted well to the San Diego climate – his hair looked much better with the low humidity – the Santa Ana winds left his throat perpetually dry. He picked up the phone and saw that in fact it was 2:47 a.m. He also saw two more messages from his mom and one from Maria sent just a half hour ago. He read the last one.

Just getting done with my shift. I hope you’re comfortable. I hated seeing you in pain. I’ll see you in the morning.

He might have cried if not distracted by the need to relieve himself and the notification of a voicemail. Near his arm, he found a wire which led to a red button. He pressed it twice. The phone message confirmed what he feared. He got the job. Crown molding for a huge house in the ritziest neighborhood around. More than three times what he’d ever made on a job. Definitely enough for a deposit on a decent apartment. And they wanted him to start Monday. Today was Saturday. Sunday, if you wanted to get technical about it. He heard footsteps and Nurse Stephanie’s voice ring out. He almost wet the bed in relief.

When Maria came to get him midmorning, Zach was beat, having been awake since his nocturnal bathroom trip. But some of the news had been good. He’d met with Dr. Nguyen, a tall man, who’d given him the green light for release with a message that was both encouraging and cautionary.

“We have the snake bite taken care of; it appears that you got very little venom. Let us know right away if you have dizziness, blurred vision, nausea, or excessive sweating but I don’t expect any of that. As far as the ribs go, you’re pretty lucky. I’ve never seen breaks that bad where a lung wasn’t punctured. You’re going to need at least six weeks to heal. No biking, no twisting, no surfing. Some light walking when you’re up to it, but that’s it. I’ve seen lungs puncture weeks after a break.”

Breakfast consisted of white toast, orange marmalade, red jello, and cranberry juice. Though it hurt to swallow, Zach was surprised at how hungry he was. His new nurse, Walter, denied him seconds, suggesting he wait a bit to make sure the food settled. He planned to ask Maria to stop for a pollo asado burrito, his daily addiction since coming to SoCal, on the way home.

Lastly, he’d been served the paperwork. It was a short but intimidating stack. Nothing was too clear, but he figured he’d be in debt to the hospital for at least a generation. Fortunately, Maria showed up before he could dwell on it too much.

“Hey champ, how are you? I get to spring you out of here.”

“Good news travels. Take me home, baby.” Zach hoped his voice sounded better than he felt. Six weeks was impossible. Maybe he could put the La Jolla people off a week, but six, forget it. He had to will himself back to health so cheeriness was a start. Maria frowned slightly so he added, “I mean to your place.”

He refused a wheelchair and the long, slow walk to the car fully exhausted him. He had trouble following Maria’s light conversation and drifted off on the ride home. In short order, he was on the couch with no burrito, and Maria was kissing him again on the forehead, saying she’d be back later in the afternoon. His last thought before passing out was what the hell happened to his bike. He’d spent a pretty penny on that thing.

Three hours later everything hurt, though no dizziness, vision issues, nausea, or sweating. He managed a bathroom trip then collapsed back on the couch. He found his phone and ordered a burrito through Uber Eats. He sent his mom a quick text saying he’d been busy but would call soon. Why was his phone working perfectly and his body so broken after the crash? There were facts to face, but they couldn’t be faced on an empty stomach so he waited for the app to let him know that lunch had arrived.

With three quarters of a burrito in his stomach, the facts were these. He had come to California for a girl and the promise of a job or maybe it was the reverse, he couldn’t be sure. Neither had worked out too well and now he was hurt and likely owed some hospital a shit ton of money. There was no chance he’d be ready to work tomorrow – he’d let a return call from the client go to voicemail – or even next week. The roof over his head was temporary and his current bank balance, while above zero, would not keep him in San Diego much longer without any income flowing his way.

Those were tough facts and they effectively ruined the last quarter of the burrito for him. But he thought about his dad’s corny expression of putting your big boy pants on and facing your troubles. So, he took a pain pill and started to work on a list of solutions. He blamed a cloudy head but he could only come up with three alternatives.

His preferred solution was to let Maria nurse him back to health while simultaneously convincing her to fall back in love with him. This solution had many downsides. It presumed she had been in love with him which was not at all certain. It also seemed highly improbable. What could a convalescent Zach offer that a healthy one couldn’t?

A second possibility was to simply cut and run. Find a way to get home, move in with his parents, let them nurse him back to health, and then resume his unofficial post as the crown molding king of the Florida panhandle. This solution also had its negatives. Foremost, it was the last thing he wanted to do. Second, though he was without peer in the crown molding world, in his exuberance to get to San Diego, he had done less than his finest work in his last few jobs. “Good riddance, you sloppy bastard” still rang in his ears.

A third solution was the time-honored “take a road trip” when things get tough. Undefined road trips always offered the promises of unexpected adventures, good luck, and loose women. Here again, he could only see downsides. For the first time in forever, he only wanted one woman, his luck appeared to be anything but good at the moment, and he was pretty sure he couldn’t manage the driving, much less any accompanying adventures.

His stomach rumbled. Snakebite induced nausea? He lay back and crossed his arms across his chest in a funeral home posture. All of this thinking and anxiety wore him out.

Four days later in the late afternoon, Zach sat on the couch thinking about the snake, something he did a lot. He had done some Googling on the subject of reptilian intelligence and had come to the conclusion to forgive the snake, having decided that the snake was not exercising free will in biting him. The snake existed in a world of instinct and action and reaction. He had landed too close to it and the snake had to bite him. Simple. Now the snake was undoubtedly living its life: hunting rodents, avoiding humans, sunning itself, biting creatures who came too close, and possibly mating when that time came, though Zach hadn’t researched how that act was accomplished. He envied that life in a way. No decisions to be made.

All of this snake thinking was bad for his shin. The more he thought about the snake, the more he was convinced his shin hurt though there were absolutely no signs of symptoms. These non-symptoms went beyond his shin. The last three days had easily been the most inactive of his life and there was much too much time to think about things, especially his broken body. He’d discovered that you weren’t supposed to think about your body parts, and, that if you did, you likely would begin to feel that they hurt. Besides his shin, he’d been convinced at different times that his right pinkie toe (did he break it during the fall?), his left inner ear (surfer’s ear?), and even his cock (a delayed reaction from an unwise unprotected encounter several years back?) hurt and needed treatment. There was zero evidence for these pains so, in short, he was going crazy.

The saving grace was that the pain in his ribs was real and a wrong turn or twist would bring him crashing back from his delusions. Sleeping was rough and only managed with a complicated arrangement of pillows, a pain pill, and a shot and half of whiskey. He’d wanted shots two of whiskey, and Maria one, so they’d reached a compromise.

Despite not being around much, between her two jobs and campaign work, Maria had been amazing. She brought him a steady supply of burritos, did his laundry, fixed his morning coffee, and even managed to track down his bike (it turns out the homeless guys had turned it in to the local rec center). She also hadn’t once asked him about his plans, which was great since he hadn’t made any progress on that front.

There were two pitfalls to how great Maria was being. One, Zach felt guiltier by the hour. Though he’d long reveled in projecting a slacker image, in truth, he’d always been quite independent. On the third day after the fall, he walked up to the local Mexican market and bought Maria her favorite guacamole and chips. Walking back, thinking about some phantom pain, he’d missed an uneven spot in the sidewalk, stumbled, managed to keep himself upright, but dropped the guacamole which of course had split open and spilled all over the concrete. Out of breath and in pain, he’d stared at the wreckage in disbelief. He had no energy to walk the six blocks back to the store.

Second, he feared that he was truly falling in love with Maria. They’d known each other almost a year, having begun a long-distance relationship after meeting at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, and then officially dating his first six months in San Diego. The end of those six months coincided with the end of his room lease (he’d of course hoped she’d invite him to move in by then) and their break-up. But now, from his vantage point on the couch, he saw her in a different light. She moved through life with an energy and optimism that buoyed his spirits. When she was gone, he missed her presence more than he missed having sex with her, and as shallow as he knew that made him out to be, it was a first. He wondered how six months could have gone by without him understanding the depth of his feelings for her. He thought about what she told him when she said she needed a break.

“It’s all fun, Zach. There should be more.”

He’d had no idea what she was talking about. Wasn’t fun a good thing? It wasn’t like they were married with kids so why even think about anything beyond fun?

And they’d had a lot of fun. His first weekend in San Diego, she took him to Tijuana to get his 4Runner detailed so he could drive Uber while building up his crown molding clientele. While waiting the three hours for the truck to be ready, they indulged in far too much beer, tacos, and tequila to drive home so instead they got a hotel room right downtown on Avenida Revolution. The night was spent in a boozy haze of loud club music and hotel room sex, always a favorite for Zach. A few weeks later, they drove to the wine country of Central California and he had marveled at elephant seals, Highway 1 hugging the jagged cliffs of the shoreline, and the novelty and refinement of wine tasting. When they weren’t having fun, they worked. She at the bar a few nights, the non-profit during the day, and the Sanders campaign with whatever time remained. He got a few molding jobs but his contact, the husband of a friend of his third cousin, had vastly overestimated his sway in that niche industry. So he drove Uber at night, the 4Runner, while not the vehicle of choice for the business person to take to the airport, a fine ride for shuttling drunken San Diegans home from the bustling downtown Gaslamp District.

Six months had gone by and he’d reflected on nothing. Not his feelings for her, not the fact that he was taking in less money than he was spending, and not the fact that building up a new business was much more challenging in a big city full of immigrants who were much hungrier to work than he was, rather than his backwater hometown where his father, a union pipe fitter, knew everyone and had practically spoon-fed him clients. Reflection had never been his strong suit, and now he had nothing but time for that. Fortunately, he heard the door to the apartment open letting in the smells of honey and Mexican food. Again she kissed him on the forehead – this decidedly non-sexual act was becoming very disconcerting – and dropped a foil wrapped burrito in his lap. But she also sat down next to him. A sign he couldn’t interpret so he thanked her and waited for what might come.

“How are you feeling?”

“Better,” he replied much too cheerfully. “I thought I’d drive for a few hours tonight.”

“Sure you’re ready?”

“It’s just Uber, I’m my own boss, so I can quit if I’m not feeling it. What about you, more phone banking?” With Super Tuesday and the California primary just days away, Maria had been out almost every evening contacting registered voters. Phone banking, Zach was surprised to discover, usually involved texting. Maria sent him a daily sample of her cheerful text rejoinders (“Hi, I’m Maria, next Tuesday …”) though he’d made a solemn promise to vote. A promise he knew was weakened by the fact that he’d only registered in the 11th hour on the 15th and last possible day to register before the election. He didn’t even know if he liked Bernie, but some things had to be done and he knew he couldn’t lie to her.

“No, I’m taking tonight off.”

“Are you at the bar?”

Maria shook her head.

“You mean, you’re home?” She hadn’t been home a single night since his accident.

She nodded. This information staggered Zach. He immediately thought about romantic possibilities for a night in together. He could rally, go to the store, and make pasta puttanesca, her favorite dish that he could cook competently (“what does it say about me that I love ‘whore’s pasta’” she’d laughed the first time he’d cooked it for her). Of course, he’d have to promise to eat the burrito the next day; Maria hated waste. The meal would be accompanied by a decent bottle of red wine (he wasn’t supposed to drink with pain pills but surely a glass or two couldn’t hurt) which they could finish over a Netflix movie. It sounded so wonderful to him, and the fantasy didn’t even include sex, another sign that he couldn’t quite wrap his head around.

But he said nothing, and they sat next each to each other in silence until she got up and he slowly unwrapped his burrito.

Sitting behind the wheel for the first time in almost a week, Zach tried to feel manly. He loved his rig, Bessie, he’d affectionately christened her, and, despite some inherent laziness and what he knew could be perceived as a sign of toxic masculinity, he felt a man should work. There was no world in which it could be said that Uber driving epitomized manliness, but still Zach felt good when he turned on his app and officially started work, even if his ribs gave him a shooting pain with the wrong movement.

His first ride was a long one with significant traffic from San Diego’s biotech corridor to the Gaslamp District. His rider, a white guy with bad skin and a receding hairline, whom Zach estimated to be about ten years older than he was, never once looked up from his laptop and barely grunted when Zach dropped him off at the Sophia Hotel, a place which seemed much too chic for his rider. But what did Zach know from chic? He sort of hated rides like that with no banter, but, shit, it felt good to earn money for the first time in a week so he shrugged off the feeling and checked his app for the next potential customer.

Forty-five minutes, two short rides later, and barely past eight, Zach had to admit he was tired. And he’d done what? Less than two hours of driving. Pathetic. But at least he had earned some money. Nothing like a crown molding wage and, if he let himself think about it, this chump change brought him effectively no closer to a security deposit and first month’s rent, but money was money. He sat in his car in the Hillcrest neighborhood, an upscale area Maria told him used to be all gay but was now overrun by hipsters pretending to be gay, a difficult concept for him to grok. There was a fancy dessert place a few blocks away, which had a lemon rosemary tart than Maria loved. He could pick up a couple along with a bottle of cabernet and hope she’d be in the mood for snuggling. But she might not be in the mood. Or she might be asleep. Or she might be glad he was gone. When he’d left, she’d told him not to overdo it, but with a look that he read as “I need my space, take your time.” Damn it, he was overthinking again, but his ribs were aching; that was real.

Across the street he saw two well-built guys holding hands, both vastly undressed in Kelly-green tank tops. He thought about gays and lemon rosemary tarts. Being a music lover, he’d spend lots of time in New Orleans, Nashville, and Austin, but maybe he was out of his league here. Maria had been an art major and spent a semester in Mexico City. On their last road trip, she’d taken him to the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, which he’d genuinely liked, but on the way out, they’d argued about a big silver rhino which fronted the museum. He’d pointed out that the rhino, cool as it may have been, was done by a Cuban artist and that there were certainly no rhinos in Cuba (he’d spent a drunken weekend in Havana with a girlfriend soon after Obama opened it up but he omitted this from his narrative). Maria told him bluntly his point was stupid, or, in truth, not even a point. They had a shitty dinner and drove home in silence. Maybe that’s why she decided to break up with him. He was a dumb bumpkin from Florida who ought to go back there. It seemed clear. His app buzzed, saving him from dwelling too much on that conclusion.

He accepted the ride and headed to San Diego’s Little Italy, a short ride from where he had been brooding. There were three girls standing outside of one of the most popular and overpriced (well, that was an assumption) restaurants on the neighborhood’s main drag. As he pulled to the curb, he thought the girls might be triplets; each with medium builds, pale skin, teased blond hair, and mini-skirts. As the one, Vivian, who must have called him verified his info on her phone, he glanced at their destination. San Ysidro, the last town, or maybe it was a neighborhood he wasn’t sure, before the United States turned into Mexico. It was an eighteen-mile ride so he had a decent fare ahead of him. The back door opened and the girls poured in, their laughter loud. The car filled with aromas of perfume, cigarette smoke, lip balm, and tequila. Tequila? None of them had looked old enough to drink.

“Hi ladies, how are you tonight?”

“We’re great. And how are you?” This from the girl in the middle who was not Vivian. He glanced at the rearview mirror as he pulled from the curb. She smiled at him. Was she flirting?

“Pretty good.” He glanced back again and saw a flash of silver. The girl he thought was Vivian passed something across the seat. He focused on the road, the freeway entrance a short distance away.

“We’re grrrrreaaat!” wafted a sing-song voice in response to his question that had already been answered. The tequila smell overtook the others and Zach realized he’d seen a flask. A further glance confirmed that it was being passed back and forth. This flask constituted open container, definitely something against Uber policy, not to mention the law. He was about to say something but flashed back to his own teenage youth, empty bottles sliding around the floorboards and no Uber driver.

“Guess where we’re going, Mr. Uber driver?”

Definitely flirty. He was taken aback. Not so long ago this situation might have been his dream. “I dunno, San Ysidro,” he answered dumbly.

“No. Tijuana, tequila, Tijuana. Tequila, Tijuana, tequila.” They were now chanting in unison and he almost told them to shut up as it hurt his ribs somehow. Jesus, how had he gotten so old and cranky? He passed the exit for Coronado and wondered if he had any responsibility here. They all seemed plenty drunk on this side of the border. The chanting stopped and the car was momentarily silent. He saw the lights of the naval shipyards on his right. For about half a second, when he was eighteen and angry with his father, he’d considered enlisting. He didn’t regret his no decision, but those ships always fascinated him.

“Hey Mr. Uber driver, wanna come with us? There’s some strip clubs down there.” Laughter broke out in the back seat.

Zach sat rigidly wondering why this bothered him. Some drunk college, well hopefully college-aged girls headed for Mexico. Probably one of them had a birthday. This plotline was not original. “No thanks,” he responded, his voice robotic.

“Your loss.”

More tequila wafted in his direction and Zach wondered about Maria and if he should have gotten those tarts. On the right he passed the exit to Imperial Beach, and was reminded of the beach walk he and Maria had taken from the pier there to the border fence. It had been an overcast day and he’d not known what to make of the U.S. Border Patrol agent staring beneath mirrored sunglasses at several young Mexican guys who’d sat atop the wall, daring to lean into the American side. Maria had gripped his hand tight as they watched the standoff. Nothing happened and, both cold, they left, walking northward in search of a warm place to eat.

“Hannah, you okay?”

The question brought Zach back to the present but the answer sent him to the past.

“I’m, I’m …”

Zach knew exactly what was going to happen and he shifted lanes rightward, then braked gently as he heard the tires grab the gravel along the side of the freeway. He knew if he slammed the brakes it’d be over. As the speedometer hit twenty, he heard the simultaneous sounds of retching and the back door opening. This was Uber legend happening to him right now. As the truck came to a stop, he only hoped it wouldn’t be too bad.

Much later, lying uncomfortably on the couch, ribs sore as hell and no shots of whiskey, after he’d dropped the girls off at San Diego State and accepted an $80 cash tip, cleaned the small but pungent pool of puke from his rear floor mat which had miraculously contained it, washed the outside of his truck at a drive-through carwash, and come home exhausted and gross and in a desperate need of a shower, did he stop to consider that it took three stores for him to find the appropriate bleach cleaner. Drifting off, he had a vague memory of reading about a virus, a news story he really hadn’t followed. Of course, he didn’t follow many.

The virus was named corona, something which could easily be turned into a beer joke, and by the time Super Tuesday rolled around, Zach had read a bunch and concluded it wasn’t good, though the current president disagreed. In his news reading, he also concluded that it didn’t look good for Bernie Sanders to become our next president, but he didn’t mention that to Maria who still seemed fervently optimistic. At eleven that morning, he texted Maria, “I voted” alongside a picture of his ballot and Bernie’s name clearly checked. He didn’t think the second part was necessary, but it couldn’t hurt to be thorough. Maria didn’t respond. Her agency, which helped low-income people, a description he now clearly fit, access health care services, was swamped with the possibility of an impending pandemic – a word he had recently learned. Yesterday, he had received a letter from the hospital and had left it unopened. Those bastards didn’t waste any time. His ribs were better; now they only hurt when he coughed, turned, laughed, or twisted. Crown molding was out but he was consistent in doing three Uber shifts a day, about an hour and half each. He made sure not to check his ratings as he was sure the lingering smell of bleach was lowering his previously spotless mark.

By six o’clock, his pasta sauce was simmering perfectly, the apartment smelling like garlic, capers, and anchovies. He’d felt a bit guilty opening the wine but knew Maria thought chefs should always have a glass at hand. It was also clear at that hour that Bernie Sanders had not had a super Tuesday. California looked good for him, but that was it. He hoped the meal would somehow revive Maria who he knew would be crushed. Just before seven, he sent Maria a tentative text. “Dinner? I cooked.” This time she answered. She was still at work but was leaving soon and meeting Cheyenne, her Bernie friend and co-volunteer, for drinks to commiserate. No thanks on dinner. Zach read the text twice. His right leg twitched. He imagined riding his bike up an infinite hill or punching a garage wall or throwing the sauce across the kitchen. He did none of those. Maria had been spending hours on that campaign since he’d known her. He got himself a plate and served himself some pasta, skipping a second glass of wine so he could drive some more.

The next few days were a blur. Maria was down. He’d never seen her that way. It almost seemed like her persona had turned into Bernie’s, slightly slumped, and mumbling with an angry affect. Every news story on Bernie contained the phrase, “No path forward.” Every story on the virus was worse than the next though the president continued to show denial. Zach learned about flattening the curve and social distancing. He wondered if they were headed to lockdown as had happened in China, the start of this mess. He felt happy that his own accident had been a week and half ago, which seemed like ages, and that he had avoided the hospital in these current times even though San Diego reportedly only had a few cases at this point. Then he felt guilty for that thought. His previous physical anxieties turned into mental ones as he studied exponential curves and read articles citing prominent epidemiologists. He shared very little with Maria; work consumed her days and extra nightshifts at the bar. The campaign was not spoken of. He continued to drive Uber, the smell of bleach fading too slowly. Lastly, he cooked for them. Simple stuff. Pasta, bean burritos, spinach salads. Once even arugula, a new term for him.

On a Friday almost two weeks after his crash, he had vegetarian lasagna in the stove, his most ambitious meal to date, and an open bottle of Chianti on the counter when Maria came in, looking exhausted as usual.

“Smells good in here.”

“Veggie lasagna. Might even be good.”

Maria turned toward the hallway, which led to her bedroom. “I’m going to lie down. I’m beat and I have to bartend tonight.”

“What? I thought you were off.”

“Me too. But Alex texted me at noon. He went home to the Bay Area. He’s worried about his mom. She thinks she may have it.”

It?”

“Yup. Alex doesn’t think so, she has no fever or anything, but he says she’s always been paranoid about her health and she’s alone so he’s gotta go.”

Zach turned away, not wanting to be seen as bitter because a hypochondriac old woman was screwing up his plans for the evening.

“Can you wake me by 7:30? I need time to try that lasagna.” Maria managed a weak smile.

“Sure.” He watched her start down the hall, shuffling, again Bernie-like. “They cancelled South by Southwest today.”

She swiveled her neck to look at him. “I heard. You can’t be surprised. Everything’s being cancelled.”

“It just made me sad is all. Thinking about how amazing it was last year.”

Maria turned completely around. “You’re sweet. It was amazing.”

Five days later, “this shit was real,” Zach thought, evoking one of his favorite teenage phrases. The NBA cancelled its season when a player tested positive. The president, whom Zach was coming to see as a real jerk, or worse, finally seemed to get that the nation was in crisis. And then the kicker, strangely enough, was that Tom Hanks got it. Tom Hanks, everyone loved Tom Hanks, how could he get it? A few months back, he and Maria had stayed in on a Saturday and rewatched Splash. They’d made out during the movie and capped the night off with a playful attempt at mermaid sex. The news feed on his phone was ever grimmer with stories multiplying about diminishing groceries and shelves empty of toilet paper and hand sanitizer. Colleges were shutting down; students would have to learn online. Bernie lost a bunch more primaries and looked more lost by the day.

Their small household continued. Maria worked. Zach drove and cooked. Couch sleeping became slightly more comfortable, and he was down to half a shot of whiskey at night.

The day after the Tom Hanks news, Zach was unloading groceries when Maria came home from work, early it seemed. The small kitchen floor was covered with a combination of reusable and paper grocery bags. Zach was in the process of building a small pyramid of cans on an unused spot of kitchen counter.

“Holy shit, that’s a lot of food. And that bag of rice is huge. Where’d you get all of this?”

Zach placed a final can, green beans, atop his somewhat asymmetrical design. He turned and grinned at her. “Zion. It’s a big Korean market in Kearny Mesa.”

“I know. Why’d you go there?”

“I was reading that Asian markets had lots of stuff. People are being racist with all of this news. Blaming the Chinese for it all. I figured they probably had stuff and needed the business.”

“That makes sense. How was it?”

“Pretty good. I tried Ranch 33 but it was too big, I got overwhelmed. Zion was good. You’ll be set for a while.”

“Me?”

“It’s your place, I’m just your resident squatter paying no rent so least I can do is get some groceries. I’m building up a bit of money from Uber so I figure, in a month or so, I’ll-”

“Zach,” Maria cut him off, “you don’t have to leave.”

Zach started to speak but she held up her hand. “I didn’t say that right. I’ve been thinking. Please stay. I’d like you to stay.”

She moved toward him, took a hand, and pulled him toward her. She hugged him gently in deference to his ribs and it felt amazing. Zach hoped he wouldn’t cry. After a long time, he began to wonder if he’d put the frozen food away and slowly pulled from her.

The news cycle and the virus both moved exponentially and, a day later on a Friday, all schools were announced shut down effective the next week. Maria’s agency was closing but going to continue to work with their clients remotely. Uber riders were fewer and farther between. The toilet paper panic was official. Zach was standing in front of his beans feeling culinarily uninspired when Maria came home from her last day at the office.

“You guys close up?”

“It was sad. We said we’d have a virtual happy hour soon.” Maria looked as tired as ever, but Zach could tell she was making an effort to be cheerful.

“We’ve got what you need.” He pointed to half a dozen bottles of wine he’d bought today.

“You think of everything. Where’d you find those?”

“Liquor store up the street. Shopped local this time.”

“That’s good. Everyone will need help. Driving?”

“A little. It’s pretty dry out there. It’s not going to be easy for me to make money for a while.”

“It’s okay, we’re okay.”

Zach knew that Maria was pretty frugal and between her two jobs had a decent amount of savings. He wasn’t broke, but his funds were dwindling. Guilt threatened to overtake him so he blurted out his other news.

“I called Seattle today.”

“Seattle?”

“Nursing homes in Seattle. A couple of them.”

Maria gave him a puzzled look.

“That’s kind of where the virus started here. It spread through one nursing home, a bunch of residents have died and they’ve had to quarantine a lot of them.”

“Right, and you called?” Maria scrunched her nose, confused.

“I figured some of those people must be really lonely. They probably were already, now their families can’t even visit.” Maria leaned against the doorjamb, staring at him. “I’m not a doctor or anything and crown molding really won’t help much these days but I think I’m pretty good at talking. The ‘gift of gab’ as they say.”

“Right,” Maria answered, still puzzled.

“So I called a couple places and offered to talk to residents. Just, talk to ‘em.”

Maria smiled in understanding. “That’s such a great idea. We talked about that today. Some of our clients just like to be in the office because they’re lonely. We can help them by phone or online but it’s not the same. What did they say?”

“The first place was totally overwhelmed. They might call me back but I doubt it. But at the second place, I talked to Nurse Sandy who was really excited. She loved the idea and said she’d figure out how to make it work. She even said I might start tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow? That’s awesome.”

“Thanks.” Zach felt self-conscious for some reason. Everything was changing. And he was too in ways he couldn’t quite explain. “I’m a little stuck on dinner. Beans or –”

Maria pushed by him. “I got this. Open a bottle of wine. I need to forget about work. I’ll be at the bar tomorrow which will be dismal too. Let’s celebrate your life as a nursing-home talker.”

Zach stepped aside and considered the wine. “A nursing-home talker. I like that.”

“Zach?”

“I didn’t even hear the door.” Zach felt busted lying on the couch and he quickly scooched up a bit. “Guess even a guy like me can get lost in thought sometimes.” He looked up at Maria. She was home from the bar, bags under her eyes.

“‘Lost in thought?’ Please don’t tell me you’re lying there thinking about the snake again.” Zach appreciated her attempt at humor but didn’t answer. She persisted.

“Were you?”

“No. Okay, sort of. I was thinking about the snake and the virus.”

“How’s that?”

“It’s dumb, I guess, but I was thinking that the virus is like a snake that bit the whole earth. Now we’re snakebit and there’s no antidote.”

“Shit, that’s a really good metaphor. Depressing, though.” Maria turned toward the kitchen. “Beer?”

Zach stood up gingerly. “I gotcha.”

They sat at the kitchen counter, a beer each and a bag of chips and bowl of salsa in front of them. Zach watched Maria eat chip after chip. He figured she probably hadn’t eaten all day.

“Should I ask you how your day was?”

“Depressing. Handwriting is on the wall, we’re shutting down.” Some of Maria’s words were lost in the munching of chips but the tone was clear. “Every business owner on the block is scared shitless. I should be happy, I got a day job. For now, anyway. But some of the staff, I don’t know how they’re going to make it. We’re going to try take-out for our food items and maybe booze can be take-out too, so some people can work, but it’s bad. Fucking depressing. What about you? Please tell me you didn’t spend all day reading about this stuff.” She nodded at his phone which he had stupidly brought with him and left on the counter next to the chips.

“Too much, it’s horrible, fucking depressing is right.” Zach looked up. That confirmation was unnecessary; Maria looked even more tired somehow. He pivoted. “But I did Uber for about four hours. The good news is my ribs hurt less and I had a decent amount of rides today.”

Maria pulled on her beer.

“I had my first call today.”

“Call?”

“The nursing home I told you about. Nurse Sandy called back and I spoke to a resident there. An older lady.”

Maria gave him a half smile. “That’s great. How’d it go?”

“Pretty good. Actually, maybe really good, I talked to her for almost an hour.”

“Almost an hour? You talked to an older lady in a nursing home for almost an hour?” Maria swallowed hard keeping herself from spitting out beer.

Zach grinned. “You’d be surprised. I started with the usual ‘how are you doing’ kind of crap and she told me that was boring.”

“That’s awesome. Then what?”

“I told her, ‘yeah you’re right, to hell with niceties what do you want to talk about?’”

Maria again came close to spitting out her beer, and, after some coughing, she sputtered, “You told an old lady ‘the hell with niceties’?”

Zach nodded.

“Oh my god, you are hilarious. Then what?”

“She said she wanted to talk about sex.”

“Sex?”

“Sex. So I said okay, let’s talk about sex. So she said to tell her about my weirdest sexual experience.”

“She did not. You’re shitting me.”

“I promise. She did.”

“And then?”

“I told her.” Zach scooped a large dollop of salsa on one of the few remaining intact chips and shoved the whole thing in his mouth.

Maria banged her knee into his. “Come on, chew up and spill it. I gotta hear this. Wait, are you blushing? It’s not about –” she wagged her index finger between them.

Zach smiled. Sex with Maria had been great but not weird. “No. It was something that happened a few years back.”

“Go on.” Maria smiled back but her tone was determined. She wasn’t going to let him off the hook here.

“I had this job at a pretty fancy house. A middle-aged couple, both lawyers I think. The house was beautiful and I did the whole downstairs. A lotta money. Well, at least for the Florida Panhandle. I didn’t see any kids but there were tons of pictures of their daughter. She was gorgeous. Soccer pictures, her high school prom pictures, pictures on the beach. Pictures everywhere. I almost thought she was dead there were so many, but one day the guy mentioned that she was in college.” Zach drank the last swig of his beer. “I finish the job on a Thursday and they were real happy and asked if I could do their bedroom as well. Of course I said yeah. The guy says we’d love to have this done soon and we happen to be going away this weekend, any chance could I finish while they’re gone. I say sure, if I measure right now, it’s a one-day job. He gives me a key, which kinda shocked the hell out of me, and I promise to do it Saturday. Friday, I buy the wood, I paint it and I roll in on Saturday maybe ten in the morning, figuring I got four or five hours of work. I got my earbuds in, music blasting, and I open the door, grab the first load of stuff from Bessie and head to the bedroom.”

“And the daughter’s lying on the bed naked just waiting for you?” Maria frowned.

“Yes, but she’s not alone. She’s with a girl and another guy.”

“Ooh, this is getting better. And then?”

Zach looked away. “I guess you could say I watched a little bit.”

“A little bit? You got turned on?”

“They were pretty attractive,” Zach nodded, still not looking at Maria.

“The guy too?”

“I couldn’t see anyone’s face, but they all had good bodies. It was slow, not like porn or anything.” Zach knew Maria hated porn.

“Hmm, then what?”

“Then I figured I needed to get the hell out of there. But I guess I musta been nervous and I dropped something. My level I think. They all turned around and we kinda just stared at each other. They weren’t embarrassed or anything. Then one of the girls, not the daughter I’m pretty sure, asked me if I wanted to join.”

“Come on,” Maria arched one eyebrow.

“Really.” He put a chip crumb in his mouth and stared at Maria.

Maria lowered her eyebrow.

“I said ‘No thank you’ and I left.”

“You said ‘No thank you’ like you were refusing seconds at a dinner party?” Her smile was wide.

“Yup.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know, I still ask myself that. Scared I guess.”

“What about the job?”

“It was the damnedest thing. The daughter called me later in the day, said she found my card on the kitchen table, said she was sorry I wasted a trip and that the house would be free on Sunday. Cool as could be. That was it.”

“So did you go back on Sunday and have sex with her?”

“Nope. I went back on Sunday and finished the crown molding. No sign of her.”

“That’s fantastic. Your weirdest sex story and you didn’t even have sex. How’d the old lady like it?”

“She loved it except she gave me a lotta hell for being chicken. She said she’d had lots of threesomes but never a four. She blamed AIDS, said it came out just when she was at her sexual prime.”

Maria leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. He couldn’t be sure but he thought her lips lingered more than during the convalescent kisses he’d received. She drew back and shook her head. “That’s a great story all around. I needed that. Let’s sit on the couch, another beer?”

They sat side by side on the couch, beers in hand. Outside was gray. It wasn’t always sunny in Southern California Zach had learned, despite what any song said. Maria punched him lightly in the shoulder. He turned toward her. She looked straight ahead, lips pursed, but he noticed the slight wrinkle under her eye which meant a suppressed smile.

“You know, despite all this sex talk, you staying here doesn’t mean we’re a romantic couple or anything. And no hosting any foursomes.”

“Understood.” Zach turned away but not before breathing in honey.

They sat for a while, drinking slowly, then Maria turned toward him.

“What’s that?”

“What?”

“That noise?”

“Noise?”

“Something’s bumping, in the kitchen I think.”

“That’s the bird.”

“The bird?”

“A pretty little lime green one, he keeps bumping into the kitchen window.”

“You’ve seen him?”

“A couple days now, off and on. I’m here more than you,” Zach almost said ‘home more than you’ but he caught himself. “Go check it out.”

Maria got up and walked to the kitchen. She came back with a smile and stood in front of him. “He, or she, is really pretty. A goldfinch. Not manic just persistent.”

Zach thought the bird might have the right approach but he keep that thought to himself also. “A goldfinch? He’s not even yellow? You know birds?”

Maria laughed. “In fact, I do, smartass. I took an art class from an amateur ornithologist once. I think we painted every bird in Southern California. That’s actually a lesser goldfinch to tell you the truth.”

“You know your shit. Poor guy is lesser because he’s not actually gold?”

Maria laughed again and sat on the couch, close but not quite touching him. “That could be. I didn’t ask.”

Zach heard a plane in the background, a less common sound than before. He thought to comment on that fact but, for the third time in the last two minutes, he held his tongue, figuring any reference to the virus would get them depressed again.

“It’s funny,” Maria started slowly, “pretty soon we may be inside locked out, then there’s that’s bird, locked outside wanting in. That’s –”

“Wait, don’t tell me. Not metaphor again.”

Maria shook her head.

“Irony,” Zach smiled. Maria gave him a thumbs up. “Not bad for a criminal justice major drop out.”

“Not bad at all.” Maria gave his leg a playful slap.

Out the window to his left, Zach saw a sliver of blue sky, the first all day. Rain was forecast that evening, maybe they should take a walk now. Before he could suggest it, Maria spoke.

“One more thing.”

Zach looked back at her.

“This virus is scary, very scary, but that's not why I asked you to stay. I’m not afraid to be alone.”

Zach said nothing but leaned his head on her shoulder. She took his hand.

In the kitchen, the lesser goldfinch thumped gently, but persistently, against the window.

About the Author

Francois Bereaud

Francois Bereaud celebrated turning 50 by earning an MFA from San Diego State University. He was the bosque journal’s “Discovery Author Award” winner in 2017. He has also been published in the City Works Journal, online at Rejected Manuscripts, and has stories upcoming at Sundial Magazine, and the Table for None Anthology.
He has written a novel and two short story collections which he dreams of publishing and seeing in the window of his beloved neighborhood bookstore.
In his non-writing life, he is a husband, dad, full time community college math professor, retired youth soccer coach, tutor and mentor in the Congolese refugee community, and mediocre hockey player.