Reader's note: This was a fun little experiment that I tried on The Prose. They offer daily, weekly, and monthly writing challenges, some even for money. I thought I would give my hand a go at one of them. Here was the prompt from the website:
"The End. It's over. SARS-CoV-2 is no more. We emerge from our shelters. What do we see? What have we learned? How will we change?"
The goals sheet taped to the wall next to the refrigerator has been glaring at me for hours, begging a look. Catching a side glimpse, my gaze mostly avoids it. Tapping rhythmically, my pen fails to scratch more words on the check on the table.
Pay to the Order of…
Any cluster of words with “Funeral Home” hadn’t been the phrase I’d anticipated writing on my next check, but then again, it has been some time since I wrote one, probably back when I bought the old Cavalier rusting outside in the lot. I avoid naming the check’s benefactor, and I direct my attention to the amount. Flipping through the bills and envelopes on the kitchen table, I pull it out from the bottom of the pile.
Smith & Sons Funeral Home. “Dear Mr. Williams…” Avoiding the subsequent paragraph, I continue down the page to the amount listed at the bottom. I quickly toss the thought of the old Cavalier out of my mind, coming instead to understand a larger number. Quickly copying the amount onto the check, I follow with a signature and date. I tap the desk a few more times. Placing my forehead into my open palm, I let out a sigh before finally addressing the check.
Jumping to the checkbook, I scribble the amount and do some quick math, calculating what I’ll have for groceries next week. I’ve been scant in the preceding weeks, so I am hopeful. As I proceed back across the room to the rustic blue chair in the corner, I spot the goals sheet again, before avoiding its gaze again.
Go to graduate school. Nearly nine months prior I had written a Personal Statement, hell-bent on returning to school after finally paying off the previous half of my student loan account. Finish 20 books before August. A copy of The Overstory still sat silently on the corner of the end table nearest the chair. Train for marathon. Registration for the race had luckily been refunded since all races were canceled, and, unfortunately, my weekly mileage was a pittance.
The letter from the funeral home arrived last week, and I’ve also been avoiding it. Mom had passed six months ago already, and I was just receiving the notice. Diabetes. She’d been having some issues all spring and, due to overflowing hospitals, when she went into shock, there wasn’t much to be done. Long waiting room lines and overworked doctors and staff couldn’t get around to her. Pre-screening took centuries. The next time a doctor encountered her it was to pronounce her dead.
Amidst the cacophony of voices around the news cycle, one could vaguely distinguish the number: just over 100,000 folks had passed due to the virus. Every time I encountered the number--from posts on the internet that included right-wing attack dogs decrying shutting an entire economy for a mere pittance to liberals denouncing the selfish president--I shuddered, and wondered. Official counts listed 100,000, but everyone I knew felt as if it had been higher.
Six months prior, after mom passed, we’d had to hold off any plans for a funeral, and it was impossible to think otherwise. Luckily, we decided to have mom cremated and we still hadn’t been able to go to the Crematorium to pick up the ashes, though that was likely to clear in the next two weeks as more “non-essential” businesses were opening up again rapidly. For the past month, other businesses had been operating at limited capacity, though not quite in full quarantine mode, as had been the case the previous six months. Strict distancing policies, as well as mask-wearing protocols, had been implemented since the highest rate of decline, though some states still outright rejected this.
Despite the numbers crawling slowly downward, strict measures were enacted and we were just beginning to emerge on the other side, though less so in the Northeast where I was living at the time. Unfortunately, mom was still in the Midwest, one of the regions struck the hardest, especially as the virus moved into rural areas with many old folks, like her.
After taking another long glance at the goals, I shift in my seat, stand up, grab the check. I place it in an envelope, seal with a lick, and proceed to leave.
Outside, I pull my mask over my face as I close the door behind me. With a few strides, I’m on the street. I start to divert into the middle of the road before catching myself, remembering that the street has re-opened to vehicular traffic. Luckily there is no one on the street, so I don’t have to awkwardly dart six feet to the side. I stick to the corner of the sidewalk anyway.
Moving down three blocks, I look up and recognize the dark blue container with the white label. With a swift gesture of the hand, I deposit my envelope and turn toward the door of the Post Office. Curling my coat sleeve in my fist, I open the handle with a quick yank. Steering six feet clear from the desk, I march toward the small box, turn the key, and pull out the small envelope.
Multiple rounds of stimulus checks went to the public before the crisis had reached six months. The first took nearly half that time to arrive, and I knew people who were never granted the monetary pension. After some congressional brawl, the government released two more waves of money to the public. I’d missed out on my second check because they’d only been given to those who’d successfully applied for unemployment, which I hadn’t, but I had lost my job at the time.
Prior to the second stimulus check, I’d been teaching at a small, local high school in the history department. Initially, our school banded together and taught virtually for a few months before the summer vacation came along. Our valiant deeds hadn’t really paid off, though, as society still struggled to stand on its own legs. Then came the budget cuts.
Half of the teaching staff were laid off, mostly in “non-essential” subject matter, starting first with the arts, followed closely by physical education, and lastly, the humanities, with history suffering the worst since English teachers still taught according to the test.
The following Fall was a tough job market, as individuals across the country--a total nearing 60 million at one point--had applied, in some form, for job assistance and unemployment. Make that 60 million and one. I applied for nearly 100 teaching jobs but never landed a single interview. With money running short, I caught wind of a few places hiring down the road and took up the shovel to dig some ditches along roads for a new program through a conservation corps program. I had no envy of brute labor, but I had at least known it in earlier years, building trails along the Appalachian Mountains for a few summers to pay my way through college. But after half a decade of teaching, I hadn’t expected my master’s degree to prepare me for this.
Luckily, more government stimulus had been pushed toward a few federal job programs, one of which focused on building railroads, a new staple in the project. It was evident this was a compromise between the two parties, as the conservatives would only approve money for people to work, but it at least made them look as though they supported so-called “green labor.” I was probably only able to secure the job because I’d at least had a track record of more than three years of work, even if teaching hadn’t paid well. A commitment was all they wanted, it seemed. And maybe grit.
Sticking to the curb, I make my way down two more blocks before reaching the ATM. I peel open the paper and scan the code on the underside of the fold. Government checks usually went to direct deposit, but after having to switch banks because of closures, I still hadn’t enrolled in the program. Punching a few buttons, the ATM brings up my account. Doing some quick figures in my head, I reconsider purchases from the last week. With the 200 dollars I’d gotten from selling my laptop on Craigslist and the new check, I’d cleared the red, though not as much as I’d hoped. I sigh a little and turn away after clearing the transaction, darting back home but not before dodging a few passersby, six feet away.
A few minutes later, I’m back at home. I drop the torn envelope atop the pile of others before turning for the chair. I let out a long sigh as I settle in. Without my laptop around, I reach instead for my phone. I flip over the cover, and a blank screen appears, dead. I cross the room to plug it in, and I catch another glimpse of the goals sheet, hanging off the wall near the refrigerator.
This time I walk over to it and stare at it for a little while, reading. Ten or so items populate the list, zero of them checked off. My gaze turns downward for a moment.
Turning, I pull the sheet from the refrigerator and, with a swift twist of my wrist, rip it in half, then half again, again. Curling the shreds into a ball, I toss them into the trashcan.
With a sigh, I slowly stride back to my chair. Seated, I glance toward the trash, then back ahead at nothing. Folding my arms, I sit quietly for a while and contemplate the bills, the check, the opening of businesses, mom. I stay somber and voiceless for a few minutes.
Then, as if summoned, I rise up, hunch next to the table, tear a piece of paper from the last notebook, and title the top of the page Goals. I tap, tap, click the pen a few times, thinking. Glancing back down sternly, I add a box and simply put: write.
Note to reader: This was originally posted as a Medium article some months ago... Enjoy.
The rain pattered atop my somber blue raincoat, as my ears thrummed amidst the rhythm and the passing vehicles reverberated inside my hood. Squishing tires splashed small puddles along the curb, which missed my sodden feet by only inches. I lifted my pale eyes to the street lantern, which flashed at a pause with two yellow bulbs before transitioning to green. I squelched across the road with a jaunt, street signs creaked as I passed underway.
Edinburgh’s streets are dark, not just because they are Gothic, the architectural style is known for sweeping upward with sharp steeples and pointed arches, but because it is a somber city, in the most beautiful of ways. On this day, I roamed a neighborhood south of Edinburgh Castle, an area known for a small cluster of local bookstores. I’d visited two already, and I was slowly making my way to a third.
The noted book store hails itself as the chief store for antique books in the region, which says something considering the ancient history of the area. In the United States, if people discover anything from before the turn of the 20th century, it is instantly declared ancient, put on a shelf, and often sold at an antique emporium on the outskirts of a city. On the contrary, to be old in Europe, you must last at least a millennia, if not longer.
When you conjure images of antique books in your mind, you might picture an old professor bound in a musty attic assiduously perusing dusted covers of Shakespeare or John Locke. Perhaps, they might be sitting in an old chair with creaky arms. With that image in mind, I strolled into the properly named Armchair Books.
As my trail runners squeaked along the sidewalk, I rounded the corner, passing a coffee shop as the store came into view. From the outside, the book store appeared like a maze—no, a jungle—of books, stacked haphazardly onto shelves, the floor, and across a teetering plank lining the palely lit roof. A creaky green door opened to an awkward tight corner, which, when traversed, immersed one in a tunnel of books. I stepped into a breeze of warmth, pale lamplight, and a pathway of books.
People often describe the smell of old books simply as “that old book smell.” This description does no justice for books, nor for the smell. As I stepped through the first level of books, rounded a right-hand turn, and tiptoe past the employee desk, I glimpsed the first signs of an antiquarian room. The smell radiated before entering, and it was soothing, not in that it relaxed your muscles or mind but because it was calm. Yes, it was tranquil.
Relaxed, my eyes wandered between the nooks and crannies of shelves, followed soon by fingers that were tracing bindings. They passed over words and manuscripts, both frozen in time. After a minute, I reached high on one shelf and pulled down a copy of The New Testament. Blazoned with gold letters and a greenish-blue cover, the book was stiff and vinyl under my gently moving fingers. With forefinger and thumb, I carefully pulled back the hardcover of the tiny trinket. It was rigid, and I managed to move a few pages along the way, opening coincidentally to the publish date of 1895. Like moving the arthritic fingers of a grandparent, I slowly worked the pages back and forth before they regained their vigor once again, flowing freely to be read again. My eyes squinted to read the print figures along the gold-lined pages, wrapping each like a wedding ring so worn and old, like a widow refusing to take it off, even after all these years.
I stroked the cover once again with my hands and, stretching my left arm high above my head, replaced it again on the bookshelf. My eyes followed the lettering as I searched for more classics. I discovered a copy of children’s stories, some old poetry, and a book on Scottish history. Each filled with wonders, each telling a story, many of whom have been dormant for years, except for the small moment they were opened and priced by the bookstore employee.
I spent a few minutes reading before I hear a squeak from the roughly patched floorboard nearby. I glanced up and met the eyes of an elderly gentleman with a flat cap. His cap was green and it matched his eyes. A cane in one hand, he moved slowly to navigate a step up into the antiquarian room. A few taps and he reached his bookshelf but not before getting distracted by the nearby Architecture section, which is comprised of mostly newer books. After a quick peek, his attention moved again, slowly, to the antiquarians.
I spent a few seconds observing his hands as they traced the covers of a few older pieces of literature. He finds a rather hefty book, tugs at it with a concerted effort, and manages to retrieve it with a little more effort. His stiff arm moves obliquely from the shelf and takes two attempts to straigthen. A shaking hand finds its way to the top of the hardcover, and he flicks open the top with a half-clasped fist. With a pointer finger and thumb clamped together, he thumbs through pages, five or ten at a time, before he backtracks with another five or ten. A few attempts later, he lands upon the publication date page and ponders over it for a minute.
With a sigh, he pauses, and says, “I remember this.”
About the Author
Ethan C Smith is an educator, adventurer, and thinker who is passionate about education, ecology, and social class. He happens to also spend a great deal of time reading and thinking about history, literature, philosophy, music, the future, and coffee.