top of page

COVID on the Line

COVID on the Line

For José ‘Keke’ Rosado

Even after reading about it in the newspapers, hearing it on the radio, and watching the long lines of customers on TV, Letty still can’t believe stores are open again. She spruces up, puts her face mask on, and ventures out of her apartment for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic.

Old enough be in the second age group vaccinated against COVID 19 yet still young enough to drive, she’s caught in an amorphous battlefield. If she decides to remember the good things before the pandemic, she starts doubting they were as good as she thinks, but when she tries to envision a great future after quarantines and distancing and masks, it’s hard to imagine anything better. In the meantime, she has decided to live in the present moment.

At least she’s learning about healthy eating. Today she’s going to a vegetarian mart to get some tofu for a stir fry they demonstrated on a TV cooking show. She buckles her seatbelt, adjusts her distance glasses, and starts the car. This royal blue vehicle with the gray interiors will transport her wherever she needs to go without complaining it’s only to pharmacies and grocery stores now, and without throwing her loneliness in her face, like the Sojourner, which recently took equipment to Mars and sent back pictures of a landscape as soulless as her life for over a year now.

After waiting in line for the guard to say it’s okay to enter, she’s forced to walk around a young woman having an argument with a guy putting fresh peaches on the shelf next to the plums. She is venting so furiously that Letty almost rushes to get the tofu and forgets about walking up and down the aisles like she used to, just checking items on the shelves, and maybe picking up something extra. A widow, she’d do anything to have a spat with her husband, and more, reconcile, which they probably would have done a lot more often this past year. But she’ll never know.

Hoping to leave quickly, she throws the tofu in the hand basket and heads toward the register. A couple’s already in line. While they wait for a cashier to log in, Letty gives herself a mental pat on the back. She hasn’t had a small victory like finding very firm tofu in a long time.

The couple in front of her look like they’ve been together for many years. Once in a while they glance at the loot in their cart and chuckle. Tell her about it. This COVID-19 scare keeps her at home ordering groceries online, but very firm tofu wasn’t available today, which provided the excuse to go out. Plus, it’s much cheaper here.

While the cashier is still logging in, the couple start to argue about the date of their second inoculation and someone gets in line six feet behind Letty. “Have you been waiting long?” The voice is muffled.

She turns around and finds dinosaurs staring down at her from a red background. The man must have borrowed his son’s mask. He has a power bar in one hand and an energy drink in the other, looks in his early thirties.

“No, only about ten minutes.” Glancing behind him, she notices two more carts joined the line.

“That long?” Before he can ask anything else, the cashier announces she is ready.

The couple advances. They take every item carefully out of the cart and place it on the belt with loving care, making comments about freshness or how hard something is to find, sometimes to each other, sometimes to the cashier.

Watching them, Letty realizes she must be careful, or she too will wind up boring strangers with unsolicited remarks. If she were the only one in line, she’d surely strike up a conversation with the cashier too, but these days everyone’s in a bad mood. Even the neighbors on her floor don’t tie up the trash like they used to and they’re losing patience with the constant barking of the dog in the apartment next to hers. The labradoodle doesn’t bother her, though. It reminds her she’s not the only one forced to remain behind closed doors.

The moment the woman at the cashier rattles a bottle of pills and mentions her cholesterol, her husband says “Oh, I forgot the yogurt’” and goes off to find it.

“This can’t get any worse,” says the dinosaur guy, who then starts to count the carts behind him loudly. “Four more,” he announces. “Can’t you call another cashier?”

No response. The husband is back, places the yogurt on the counter, and no, they don’t want to purchase plastic bags. Then it’s time for them to pay. First, do they have an account with the store so they can get a discount? Yes? What’s their telephone number?

The husband takes his time saying each digit while the cashier enters it into the computer. She looks up. “Sorry, there’s no account here with that number.”

“I must have used my cell phone.” He gives the second number at the same slow pace.

The cashier stares at the register. “Sorry. There’s no account with that number either.”

The man behind Letty again demands another cashier, and from the back a male voice adds that they’ll probably get COVID while waiting in line.

The couple give another number. No go.

Letty hears a can being opened and the air fizzing out, followed by “Can’t you just pay cash?”

The man at the cashier turns to his wife. “You probably signed us up. What number did you give?” She must have heard the same accusation Letty picked up in his voice, grimaces at him, and her voice trembles as she provides another phone number.

The dinosaur groans. “He already gave that one!”

Minutes later, a second cashier starts logging in. It’s the woman who was arguing with the guy near the entrance of the store and she looks like she will explode if the register doesn’t do what she commands.

The first couple are still providing phone numbers. As Letty is about to let the dinosaur guy pay ahead of her, she hears: “You! Next!” An order. She approaches the register quickly, drops the tofu on the belt, and opens her purse. She shows the new card from her health plan, supposed to cover food and other items like gas. “Is this in the system? Does the store accept it?”

The cashier grabs the card from Letty’s hand, but no matter how hard she tries, the register rejects it. In the meantime, the couple are still giving phone numbers and the dinosaurs are moving left and right as the man shakes his head. After another try, the cashier returns the card to Letty, who says she’ll pay in cash, doesn’t mention she’s a member and knows she has a discount coming, and she certainly doesn’t want to say her phone number out loud because the dinosaur’s moving closer. He could remember it just as he remembered all the ones the couple gave. He could phone her and insult her for taking so long at the checkout. She hands over the first bill she finds in her wallet.

Before she grabs the change and takes her tofu, the dinosaur guy slams the can and the power bar on the belt, towering over Letty. The couple, having paid in cash too, follow her out, the man blaming his wife for not getting a discount. Well, Letty could blame them both for not getting hers, but no matter, they might have COVID, better get away from them.

She runs to her car and places the bag on the passenger seat before the dinosaur guy comes out probably itching to pick a fight. The familiar grey interior comforts her while she backs out of the spot and reaches a red light. When it turns green, though, her car doesn’t move, and horns complain behind her. Well, let them wait. Her entire body is shaking so hard she doesn’t dare put her foot on the accelerator.

The next time Letty leaves her apartment, she goes to the pharmacy to get her prescription refills. She isn’t second in line this time, not even third or fourth, but she doesn’t mind, being fifth provides an excuse to stay out longer. At the counter, she notices one attendant for the indoor line, a handsome pharmacist she’s seen before, and another for the drive-through window.

While she waits, she takes stock of the pain relievers and arthritis rubs on the shelf near her, looks for calcium pills, but no, hers don’t need replenishing, then she studies the circle on the floor indicating you must maintain six feet of distance. It’s barely legible, but after a year of following strict measures, she doesn’t require fresh bold letters to understand that people’s lives are at stake.

The woman in front of her starts placing her weight on one foot, then the other. She turns around as if looking for empathy, which Letty offers by nodding her head and rolling her eyes.

When the woman steps aside to inspect the cough syrups on the shelves, Letty sees cards of bobby pins of two sizes, pink, blue, yellow, and green barrettes, scrunchies, cherry and mint cough drops, at least two decks of cards, including Spanish ones, bags of chocolates, many lipsticks and bottles of nail polish, and emery boards. She would have continued taking stock, but the inspection is disrupted when the woman moves to another circle, now first in line. Good, they’re moving quickly.

The woman behind Letty says to anyone who wants to listen that the website crashed, and she was forced to come in person to make an appointment to get the vaccine. The man behind her, who wants to confirm his appointment for the second dose, was told he had to come in to make sure they still have enough supply. Why isn’t there a separate line for people who aren’t here about prescriptions? Letty would like to know too, and so would a chorus of others, even those in the next aisle since the line is already winding around the shelves.

The pharmacist calls the woman with the full cart and Letty is first in line. The handsome pharmacist adjusts the collar of his shirt and after checking the computer, he explains that they can’t fill one of the prescriptions now, but she can come back for it late in the afternoon. The woman bends over the counter, probably showing off her cleavage, Letty thinks, and asks him to verify it. He repeats the bad news.

The woman plops her bag on the counter. “Now you tell me! Do you know how long you made me wait?” She crosses her arms. “I’m not leaving without all my medicines.”

While they continue to negotiate, the pharmacist adjusts the lapel of his white coat. “I will make sure it’s here by four o’clock and I will personally give it to you.”

Finally, finally, finally, she agrees and signs for the medicines available now.

That means it will be Letty’s turn soon, so she takes a few steps closer to the counter without waiting to be called. The cart woman puts her ID back in her wallet, zippers her purse, and puts the strap on her shoulder. Then she proceeds to take every tiny and insignificant and infuriating item out of the cart.

The pharmacist stares at the cluttered counter while the woman continues to take things out of her cart. “I always pay for everything at the same time.”

Letty wants to smack her, but it’s up to the pharmacist to put her in her place. Now she’s stuck in the no-man’s land between the counter and the line, the woman behind her already in possession of the coveted first circle.

The pharmacist asks the other attendant if the drive-through is showing any sign of lightening up so she can help him with the long line and she shrugs her shoulders. That must be a “no.” Slowly, he holds up the first item, a bar of soap.

Someone yells, “Throw it at her!” Letty can’t tell if the voice is male or female, but she feels the same exasperation.

A man pushes a cart past Letty and up to the counter. He stands mask-to-mask with the woman. “Do you realize that there is only one line? That this damn drug store doesn’t have a clue about how to organize things in this situation? Why didn’t you take your garbage to the main register?” He takes a deep breath. “You’ll get yours one day. Karma will make you pay!”

He takes the things out of his cart and dumps them into hers, turns around, takes off his mask so everyone can see his grin, and takes a bow. Letty has never clapped so hard.

In the car later, her refills on the passenger seat, Letty releases the elastic band of her mask, turns on the air conditioner, and tries to decipher why she didn’t speak up. If this happened before the pandemic, she would have complained too, but there she stood, feeling touchy and ready to cry, and when she had the chance to speak up, she kept quiet. She backs out of the parking spot and drives home certain that she forgot to get something.

A few weeks later, she decides to pretend that life is back to normal and do her grocery shopping at the small store behind the gardening center where she purchased the plants in the corner of her balcony. She knows everybody there, especially the chatty cashier. Most of all, she wants to hear the voice of somebody not on TV or the radio.

The quarantining and distancing keep her in a bad mood, but there is no way around it, she tells herself. If she wants to live longer, she must do her part. She refuses to allow COVID 19 to take her out of circulation and, as the TV doesn’t tire of repeating, we’re all in this together. Well, most of us.

She pulls into a good parking spot, sanitizes her hands and takes a shopping cart. As she makes her way up and down the aisles, a vaguely familiar woman walks by, but they hesitate and wind up not greeting each other. It upsets Letty until she realizes that with the mask, her uncut hair pinned in a bun, and the driving glasses she forgot to take off, she is hardly recognizable. She’ll look more approachable next time, she promises herself as she puts the last bag of burritos in her cart, lucky to find it, and stands in line.

Again, only one cashier. No surprise. The newspaper reported this morning that although some essential stores are open, absenteeism at work is rampant because the number of cases is still high. A boy about fourteen years old, in shorts and flip-flops, is taking the items out of his cart. The bicycle outside must be his.

Letty takes a magazine from the rack. The Queen of England reacted to her grandson’s criticism of how he and his wife were treated by saying they would discuss their grievances in private. Good for her.

The boy at the register takes out the last two items, a dozen eggs and a gallon of milk. Rejoice, all ye in heaven and on earth. Letty smiles at the cashier, but she ignores her. Oops, she forgot no one can see her smile because of the mask. If only the arthritis in the joint of the big toe weren’t making her foot hurt, everything would be perfect. She’ll rub something on it when she rests after lunch.

Then the boy takes a huge plastic crayon from his tote bag and dumps the contents on the conveyor belt. Out falls a torrent of pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters, all mixed up, all ready to be counted one by one.

“No!” Letty shoves her cart into the display of mops and brooms on her right, making it fall. She marches up to the boy. “Why didn’t you separate the coins at home?”

As she walks back to her cart, the next person in line moves back to give her more room. Her big toe starts throbbing again.

The cashier acts as if nothing happened. “Yesterday math class was really hard, wasn’t it?” she asks the boy. He must be her son’s classmate. “Jesse couldn’t figure out the homework and neither could I.” She makes another pile of coins, then pauses. “I can’t wait till this whole situation is over and you can all go back to school. There’s nothing virtual about virtual schooling.”

Can’t she talk and count at the same time?

The assistant manager calls Letty to the next register, avoiding eye contact although he’s seen her many times. He scans the items as efficiently as the electric toothbrush she used this morning. “Do you know Luis?”

Should she? “That young man? No.”

“His grandmother is in the hospital with COVID. She’s raising him and his sister. The only adult in their lives who cares.”

Letty’s tongue finds the biggest cavity in her mouth. No, a broken tooth it hadn’t discovered yet. Now it’s not just her big toe that’s throbbing. “How terrible” is all she manages to squeak out before paying and walking out knowing the tomatoes she bought aren’t as red as her face.

She puts the groceries carefully in cloth bags she keeps in the trunk, a robot quickly falling back into a routine. Just as she closes the lid, the woman who seemed vaguely familiar approaches her. “Did you really have to make such a spectacle of yourself?”

A spectacle? Letty gets into the car and slams the door, but even the beloved grey interiors can’t convince her today that in this war, she isn’t all alone.


Search By Tags
Recent Posts
bottom of page