A Pandemic Note by Sharon Houk
So Arlene gets into the back of the ambulance yelling, “I left you a note.” And off she goes in her orange fuzzy slippers and pink housecoat with a full-blown case of Covid-19.
I didn’t see any note. And anyway, this was the first time she had spoken to me in two weeks. Look, after thirty-three years of marriage, you stop feeling like talking to one another. It hadn’t helped that at the beginning of the pandemic we attempted to both work from home at same small kitchen table. After three days, I was fed up. She wanted her stuff everywhere. I wanted my coffee cup on the table. She had a rule: no coffee cups on the “desk.” I said that it wasn’t a desk. She said it wasn’t a table. It was a table. It was categorically a table. And I was trying to handle business. She was blathering. I needed space. She had two monitors and a printer. Her phone was ringing off the hook. How could I think straight? After a week, I moved into the living room onto a series of tray tables. I had my laptop balanced on one, my papers on another, my binders on another, and my office supplies on another. It looked as if my office desk had come home to play “train.”
“Roote’s Pest Control, Arlene speaking. How may I help you?” I heard this refrain all day long while I was trying to work. “Roote’s Pest Control.” “Roote’s Pest Control.”
The dinners she cooked were completely uninspiring. The cleaning was barely competent. And because I was home, she was constantly nagging at me: fix the toilet – it doesn’t help if you jiggle the hook, close up the hole by the attic window, get the leaves out of the gutter, and so on. It was a never-ending flood of reasons why I didn’t measure up. Well, Earth to Arlene: I don’t measure up. I’m not ever going to measure up. I’m not ever going to be what you want me to be and I refuse to live the rest of my life as a sad shadow of myself. If a pandemic tells you anything, it’s that you’d better be happy now because tomorrow is not promised. So I decided that as soon as this pandemic was over, I was getting a divorce.
And then she up and got sick. I think she knew she was sick long before she let on. All I know is that suddenly, one night, she couldn’t breathe and was whisked off to the hospital.
“I left you a note,” she yelled as she left.
Arlene landed right in the ICU on a ventilator. Just like that. Just like that I couldn’t find anything in the house.
I found the first note inside the dishwasher:
The dishwasher doesn’t work. It last worked in 1986. The dishwashing soap is in the cabinet under the sink. Don’t worry. You can do it. Don’t touch my pink rubber gloves.
The next note was in the mailbox:
Your mother’s birthday is next week. She might enjoy a card. The stamps are in the drawer under the microwave. Also, the water bill is high because the toilet is running.
Then on the inside of the attic door:
The noise is raccoons. Fix. The. Hole.
In the freezer:
Sucks to be you. Buy a cookbook.
Taped to the mop handle in the basement after a series of hard rains:
Please don’t fall trying to clean the gutters. Pay someone.
In the laundry basket:
If you wash your red shirt in warm water, all your underpants will turn pink. Also: pull knob to turn on; push knob to turn off.
Taped to the hose outside:
Plants are people.
In the fuse box:
Second down on the left. Don’t run both window air conditioners at the same time.
In my winter hat in the closet, not because it was cold outside, but because I was looking for notes:
If you find this note, I think that means I didn’t make it. I’m so sorry, Ray. You know what I’ve never told you? I’ve never told you how much I respect you. I’ve always respected the work that you do. You work so hard. And when times were tough, you always figured out a way to keep us going. And I respect the man that you are. Everyone in the neighborhood knows they can count on you. It’s just that things got odd between us. I don’t know what happened. But here’s what will never change: I respect you as a man and as a husband. Thanks for being my partner all these strange wonderful and woeful years.
We were a pair, weren’t we?
Be free, my friend,
And under her pillow:
I miss you, too.
As odd things happen during a pandemic, I took my own turn in the ICU at the same time Arlene got well enough to come home. Arlene is at home fine. I'm in the ICU, but they tell me that my case is not so serious. I need a bit of oxygen and a bit of watching over. I left Arlene a note taped to the kitchen table:
I got us a new dishwasher. Sent Mom a card. Evicted the raccoons. Ordered takeout. Fell off the ladder. Just kidding. Paid Palmer’s to clean gutters. Am wearing pink underpants – proudly. Have been hot. Love and miss you. Plants are people. Oh, and also, I didn’t fix the toilet. It’s old. It’s impossible. It’s persnickety. I’m sorry. You’ll have to jiggle the hook.
Love you always,
While in the ICU, I got a note from Arlene:
Thanks for the dishwasher. The previous one was rather old and impossible, if I care to admit it. I’m sorry. And about the toilet, no problem. I’ll be glad to jiggle the hook.
originally published in the Joliet Herald-News LocalLit Covid Chronicles, October, 2020