Kay Smith-Blum

© Copyright 2021 by Kay Smith-Blum

Photo by photographer @enginakyurt at Unsplash
           Photo by photographer @enginakyurt at Unsplash

 It occurred to me quite early on in the pandemic how human we all are. We stumbled, we tripped, we faltered and fell into the morass of fear, barely keeping our heads above the brim of quarantine. We masked up or didn’t. We embraced technology or didn’t. We followed every headline or didn’t. And our foibles were laughable. Truly. And it was good to laugh at myself and along with others. My most self-deprecating friends provided great fodder for a series of “virus” essays that I realized could bring a much-needed smile in a time of great devastation. I hope, Dear Reader, this brings one to your face.
Who breaks their arm planting bulbs? Well, technically, I was retrieving bulbs, from a box on the other side of the low-rise-industrial-wire fence they put up around small urban gardens at street level to keep out the dogs that don’t keep out the dogs. Why build a fence just high enough for me to trip over? The annoying answer targets me, like mother nature’s sniper: most wouldn’t trip over it. Tripping is a visceral confirmation of old age, a not-so-steady-but-sure march to death, bringing with it the accidents of toddlerhood.

The virus is also on the march and the Governor has closed all pools eliminating the aquatic option to recovery. So, here I am—albeit four staggeringly painful and miraculous-in-the-fact-my-bone-healed-at-my-age months later—in physical therapy, a risky proposition. 

Kat, my physical therapist, announced on Tuesday I should have worn a mask. They had sent an email. One I deleted before reading as I do most irritatingly-perky missives that fill up my inbox with random products or advice on healthy choices used to make. In light of my possible demise-by-virus, I’ve decided I’m healthy enough, especially as someone who has long planned on dying at seventy-five. Which is the perfect age to do so, and I could tell you why but I won’t digress.

On Thursday, I arrive orange bandana-bound and insert my disinfected credit card for the co-pay. I Purell my hands and look right. A young man is seated on the banquette, his body twisted toward the receptionist counter. He chatters away, without a mask. His pants ride way-too-low, his fleshy cheeks pressing against the rust vinyl cushion in cringe-worthy fashion. This can’t be the hygienic standard to which they aspire.

The machine buzzes. I extract my card and whisper. “He needs to pull up his pants.” 
The mask clad receptionist doesn’t make eye contact as she processes my receipt. “His therapist is speaking with him about that.” 

Her response is vexingly passive but the office has lost two-thirds of their patients over the past three weeks to the paranoia of Covid-19. Patients possibly smarter than I. I tap another dab of hand sanitizer into my palm and rub, wondering how often they disinfect the seating area and how crotchety I sound, an old woman who doesn’t understand the sartorial choices of the youth of today. Well, the young would be crotchety too if a pandemic had her age group in its sights. I take a chair on the far side of the room and consider the likelihood of the virus spreading through flatulence.
Kat comes through to collect me. I nod toward the talker whose pants remain low. Kat appears not to notice. It occurs to me the receptionist was referring to the talker’s psychologist, not his physical therapist. I yearn for a couch of my own to sort out what exactly I should be prioritizing in the possibly-less-than eight good years I’ve got left that will be awash with one superbug after another. A mask wardrobe climbs to the top of my list. We head to the main room. 

I dump my down vest and phone on the chair beside a freshly-wiped treatment table on the east wall of windows. Stationary bikes line the south window bank. Kat sets the timer on the hand bike and moves off to another patient.

Cranes dot the Seattle skyline in front of me exemplifying the war between density and social distancing. Why does the younger population occupying all these new apartment buildings think they don’t have to wear a mask? All those influencer-PSA’s have not had any influence at all based on the untethered droves of out-of-school teenagers roving the city at will. Adolescent clumps that pass infuriatingly close to you on any given street. If Covid-19 symptoms were more like Ebola symptoms I think young people would take it more seriously. Bleeding from their eyes would make them think twice about swapping spittle.

A minute into the six I’m required to do, a case-in-point, a high school athlete emblazoned with his school logo begins doing planks in front of the adjacent mirrored wall eight feet to my right. He has no mask either. He’s sweating. The type of sweat that could include the droplets that the CDC says—in the 3-D enactment I just saw on my iPhone—can possibly travel more than six feet. I raise my hand off the bike handle to test for a breeze. 

I catch Kat looking at me. I reclaim the hand peddle and stare out the window at the storm clouds rolling in from the south Sound, imagining droplets drifting toward me. I’ll have to burn my tee shirt and leggings. I dismount and wash my hands at the sink in the center island. I fill a cup with water and realize I’ve touched the lever. I wash my hands again.

Kat motions me to the table. She works on my left shoulder—the break was very close to my socket—I close my eyes and try to swallow the tickle in my throat that only occurs when I’m close to people. My eyes water in response. I resist the urge to wipe them because I can’t remember if I scrubbed the tips of my fingers.

Kat manipulates my arm over my head. I breathe into the pain. The talker rings out behind me. Is that his breath or Kat’s I feel parting my hairline? Why didn’t I bury my phone under my vest? I open my eyes. The talker moves south.

I raise my arm for a six-week progress measurement. Kat smiles and tells me I’m improving rapidly. I nod, pleased I’ll be in good shape for my impending death.

The talker, whose pants are a bit higher now, but not high enough, comes back into my sightline. Doesn’t he realize the whole mask thing only works if we all wear one? I approximate the space between us and contemplate giving him a belt. Would he wear it? If the clinic can require face coverings why not belts? 

Kat’s intern cajoles the chatterbox into action when he pauses, ignoring the non-stop patter. Does the intern realize that a life-altering LDC-Titanic-loogie could be headed his way? I speculate on the intern’s age. His ability to assess risk is probably still developing. 

Rob, the aging hippie who typically has the appointment after me, arrives. He doesn’t have a mask either. I fume as Rob, with his shoulder length grey ponytail and bad knee, bob past. He mounts the recumbent bike.

Kat hands me a pair of two-pound weights. I do my arm lifts in a huff. I need a drink. I refill my water cup as Kat grabs a pillowcase.

I join her at the linoleum-covered wall. Do they wipe it down after every use? The pillowcase, the only barrier between me and possible Covid-19 remnants, keeps my arms at a tensioned distance that makes my shoulders burn by the second set of ten.

Kat returns, creating a much-appreciated human shield between the talker and me. He’s waxing on while doing a step exercise about four feet away with a thick band of silicone around his ankles. The band pulls on his pants. Someone should have thought that through. 

Kat circumvents his path, leading me to the mirror. Behind me, the athlete moves to a table next to the one I used. Shouldn’t he be in the-tables-for-those-without-masks section on the far side of the room? His leg bumps the chair holding my vest and phone.

Kat hands me a rubber blade to shake. She sets a timer. 

In the mirror, I can see the talker’s pants slip another notch. The athlete is exhaling toward my chair. I try to concentrate on jiggling the blade. My shoulder aches. Thirty seconds goes on a long time. Slipping-pants two-steps out of my sightline. The athlete turns his head the other way. The timer beeps. I exhale. 

Kat guides me to the east wall of pulleys. Her intern assigns slipping-pants his last exercise in the northwest corner of the room. I close my eyes and pull. My bandana and arms move with my breath. Right arm up, left arm down. Reverse. I hit twenty and open my eyes.

Kat says I’m all done. 

Slipping-pants has been dismissed too but he stands in the passageway, making it impossible for anyone to maintain a social distance and exit. My vest and phone remain hostage on the chair next to the athlete, now icing in the recline, breathing straight up to the ceiling.

I envision a tree-shaped cloud of droplets, a mushroom cloud really, enveloping the ceiling. I raise an eyebrow at Kat. No Way Out?

You can exit this way.” She points to an alternative route through the back hallway of treatment rooms. 

I snatch up my things and hair slips down on my right shoulder. My hair clip isn’t the only one losing its grip. The mirrored wall is three short feet from Rob on the bike.

I release the rest of my hair and hold up the clip. “Is there a mirror anywhere else?”
Kat nods. “Just inside the first treatment room.”

I suck in my breath, make a dash for my things and scurry past Rob’s ponytail into the room. I twist up my hair and zip my vest. I adjust my bandana, Purell my phone and hands and stuff a tissue into my pocket for the walk back down the hill. I peek out. Pants is levering the door open with an ungloved hand. I grab another tissue.

I note Kat watching me. 

I issue a muffled goodbye, temporarily rejecting the notion that a tissue is absorbent and place it between my palm and the door handle. I creep down the hall. An elevator pings. I wait until the doors thump closed before stepping around the corner. I toss the tissue in the trash can and elbow the button. 

The elevator deposits me in the lobby. I head to the Boren Avenue exit. Slipping-pants is pushing through the glass door. He goes left. I push through the door with my back. Does everyone over sixty in Puget Sound feel like they have a target on theirs? 

I turn right and lap O’Dea High School, before circling back to my route home. Slipping-pants is a block ahead of me. I slow my pace.

The cherry-blossom-lined hillside envelops him and he slips from my horizon. 

A cluster of unmasked teens lumber toward me. I cross to the other side of the street, mulling over the merits of a fully functioning arm while attached to a ventilator. 

Is it something I will need?

 Kay Smith-Blum, a recovering retailer, living in Seattle, has written two novels of historical fiction, now out for agent review. Her short works can be found now or in the future at Fiction Southeast, Fiction Attic Press, Minerva Rising, CommuterLit and The Stray Branch. Her humorous essays (nominated for Best of the Net) may be found at Pif Magazine, Heavy Feather Review, The Furious Gazelle, Quail Bell Magazine, Bewildering Stories and Down in the Dirt Magazine (2020 Anthology). Read along at
Twitter@kaysmithblum  Facebook/Linkedin Kay Smith-Blum

Targets was originally published by Heavy Feather Review.


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