FICTION October 2, 2020

In the Time of Virus

2020 Booth Prize for Unexpected Literature Shortlist

Dad and I sit horrified in front of the screen. He’s still in his overalls, I have a lap full of homework, and both of us are gob smacked at the images of Black men with skin dripping off their bodies. Their muscles mangled as if burned in jet fuel, they are rampaging around a mostly white campus, or neighborhood, or bar. 

The blond man on the television stumbles through some facts about 1619, a bastardization of something reported in the Times. “The only fact for sure being, the most prolific infectors are African Americans.”

These are not the first images we have seen, and they won’t be the last. When I was in middle school, Toothless, the bizarre mascot for racial unity, made its rounds. He was a plump molar, rainbow colored, whose mouth was a gaping black smile. The influence was clear when I started high school and many of my neighbors moved to the city, or out of the country, or were homeschooled, and the ones who still attended public school wore necklaces of their own teeth like dog tags. It was for safety, we were told. Anyone who looked Black could snap at any moment, a pit bull with a jaw that breaks the skin of its victim and locks in place. 

Ma reaches over the couch and turns off the television. Our brains will turn to mush if we keep watching. She says this without speaking, but we can tell from the slight annoyance in her eyes that this is what she means. She’s right. My brain is mush, overheated mush that gives me headaches when I think too hard. 

After dinner, we lock up the house. We turn on a pop station, loud so neighbors cannot hear us. We talk in a hush. We release the fear we have carried through the day, and my body exhales like a balloon whose end has finally been unpinched. I become unstretched. The days seem better when we talk this way, the kind of vulnerability that sounds like a prayer. 

Ma confers with us about our cookie jar money above the fridge. We should save more. “Just in case,” we all say. “Just in case.” We pull down the Toothless cookie jar and count the money we keep in his rotten head. 

$130.00

On the bus ride to school, I sit alone, placing a backpack in the empty space next to me. The ride lasts only ten minutes. Another Black girl whom I have never seen walks down the aisle, and there is only one empty seat. I let her sit next to me, which is a mistake, I know. 

Eyes immediately flutter toward us. We do not speak, but everyone’s ears keep perking as if they expect us to. I check my watch. Only three minutes have passed. There are almonds in my pocket; I keep them to calm my nerves. Eating is a normal thing to do so I eat. The crunch of the nuts catches the girl’s attention. 

She whispers, “Could I have a handful?”

The eyes around us are no longer pretending to be casual. They are pointed. They are fixed. They are reaching for telephones and makeshift weapons. I give her the whole bag and remain silent. No sudden moves. 

“Hey!” Someone’s head peeks over the seat in front of us. “What are you whispering about?” 

“Nothing. She asked for some of my almonds and I gave her some. That’s it.” 

“Bull. Shit,” he huffs. “And just where are these almonds?” The girl hands him the plastic bag, and he jabs his white fingers into the little brown mounds. He swirls them around, smells a few, and chooses one to lick—a security test he learned from a detective drama. He announces to the bus, “It’s OK, everybody, they’re just sharing almonds.”

He gives them back. Even though I no longer want them, I stick them in my pocket. Applause erupts on the bus. Actual applause. I am on a field and have been successfully tackled; I am in a field and have won an Oscar for being the most beautifully whipped slave. 

I am a cautious enemy. I am suspicious.

The next day there are two marked seats. By the end of the week there are posters with that toothy face reminding all students to report any racially dangerous scenarios, such as public meals, loud conversations, and nonprofessional gatherings of Black people. 

Dad receives a letter he hopes is a mistake:

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Green,

It has come to my attention that Sade has not completely complied with the school’s preventative health requirements. All our other parents are concerned about the teeth of your daughter and fear that she is endangering herself and other children. I am asking that the teeth be removed immediately. In some places you would be breaking the law, but I am trying to be civil. If the teeth continue to be a problem, Sade will be removed from the tennis team, and if it persists after that, she will be asked to leave the school. 

Sincerely,

Dr. Johnson, Superintendent

Along with the letter are pamphlets with Toothless logos stamped in the corner. They list statistics on the jaw’s strength and say mouth muscles are the strongest in the body. They say Black attackers have strong molars, ideal for chewing flesh, making them extremely dangerous during this outbreak. We are a minority in population but make up the majority of infected Americans. 

One pamphlet lists two issues coming up for a vote in our district. They want to make Black teeth illegal in public, for our teeth to be removed to eliminate fear. Any suspicious person with teeth could have charges brought against them for inciting panic. My feed is full of pictures of bleeding gums. For the last few years, people have been jumping kids and prying out their teeth. There are videos of this happening in front of police officers, but they turn away, and in the more chilling videos they thank the perpetrators for making the streets safer. 

Dad brings the pamphlets with us to my doctor’s appointment. I have already gotten all my vaccinations, even the optional flu shot. I have gotten two physicals, proof for each, turned into school, pink copies kept for home records. Dad insists that there are clues to when people go Zombie, that a doctor could vouch for us, that we are clean, that we are good Black people, that whites don’t need to be scared. 

The doctor makes a face at the pamphlets but doesn’t know how to help other than to recommend dentists. It changes nothing. We use what money we have on the copayment and a small fry on the way home. 

Dad offers to drive me to team events to appease the other parents, but Coach believes this would incite panic. He and Mom still have their teeth, and people will notice. People will be made uncomfortable in a place where they hoped not to be. In Texas recently a white woman was bitten at a softball game after touching a Black woman’s braids. We tell Coach we understand. We are understanding Blacks.

After dinner, Spotify plays something low-fi, and we discuss our options. We plan to spend the whole night debating the positives and negatives of removing teeth, the biggest positive being we could attend worship. It’s only a twenty-minute drive to the nearest place where people like us can embrace without being watched, comforting one another with the knowledge that teeth will be left behind anyway. It’s been so long since we’ve attended church, I’ve convinced myself the pews are comfortable and the old biddies adorned in their intricate little hats are onto something fashionable. 

Before we mention the negatives, a siren zooms toward our building. Mother shushes the conversation. We turn the speaker off and are still. I remember a loose floorboard in my closet and imagine escaping into the ceiling of the lower apartment if anyone tries to collect us. Ma grabs my arm with all her strength. I love you, her eyes whisper. It is the only way she knows how to say it. I blink. 

The siren passes. Dad removes himself from the table. He needs tea; never make a decision without tea. He fetches the kettle, fills it with water, and finds a burner to rest it on. When the knob on the stove turns, there is a tick, tick, tick. The smell of gas and tick, tick, tick. His nostrils flare, and when he exhales what seems like forty years of air, the flame appears.

A brick wrapped in the day’s newspaper crashes onto the dining room floor, scratching the hardwood. The front page describes a grim scene on the Ohio turnpike. Four college students collided—one car was speeding and one was not. All died and two were resurrected. The Black pair were beheaded on site, teeth extracted for safety. 

Ma huffs as she leans deeply into her chair and clutches her chest, startled. 

“I’ll clean up the mess, Ma.”

The glass spread across the floor distorts my reflection. In its reflective strips I look tall and thin, my face nearly impossible to make out. In the right dustpan angle, it appears my flesh is slipping off, the shattered mirror revealing a truth I have never wanted to see. When I stand, I’m convinced for a moment that my face is in the paper’s headlines. I tell no one this and go to the trashcan to dispose of everything. 

“Don’t worry,” Dad assures. “I can fix this.” He grabs the paper and smooths it with his hands. He finds painter’s tape in a junk drawer and covers the hole with words, taping the edges to the frame. 

When all is settled, we pray. We pray. We pray alone and together. We count our secret money; Dad adds a complete paycheck. We take a small amount out for the window, yet it has grown to the most money I have ever seen in one place.

$461.12

Dad dips a brush into thick ink and begins painting my teeth. Once the coating is dried and sealed, we will appear to have no teeth. Our mouths will become our own secret. He speaks mostly because Ma can’t shush him while her mouth dries. We are quiet women, listening to the knowledge we rarely allow ourselves to hear. 

Dad tells us about aristocrats in ancient Japan who brought their obsession with black decorations and adornments to international markets, some of the same markets where our ancestors were sold. They learned about these adornments while waiting to be sold, and knowledge was the only thing they could pass on to their children and their children’s children. The wind hits the newspaper on the window so softly it becomes the flicker of a flame. I become a princess, and Dad becomes a soft-spoken general. Ma proudly awaits the ceremony to mark my coming of age. 

He says this is Ohaguro, turning white teeth dark because all dark things are considered beautiful. He finishes my last tooth with the flamboyant stroke of an artist, like he might sign his name. “You now have the authority of a woman, the care of a mother, and the wit of a wife.”

While I question the accuracy of this tale, and our place in such a ritual, I’m comforted by the care of the moment. As I wait for my teeth to dry, for the first time since I was a child, my mother brushes my hair. 

It has nearly congealed and frizzes around the edges. She delicately separates thick rows, sets out coconut oil and product, and braids immaculate whips. We sit this way for most of the night, my shoulders between her knees as she tries not to pull too hard on my scalp. She speaks her own version of tradition. She says our struggle is not new. And she speaks not only of our bonds in slavery but of a time before. Even though we cannot trace our ancestry, she feels we have been robbed of a magnificent kingdom. “Think of your hair and these strong teeth as weapons. Fight for it. Do not degrade any part of yourself to make someone else comfortable.”

Speaking toothless is a hard thing to mimic. I plant my words on the roof of my mouth but am worried I fail to keep my teeth away from the slithering “s” that appears in every word. I am relieved when the snack truck arrives because I can step down from the register.

There are stacks and stacks of brown bins, each filled with one type of product. There are chips and crackers, candies and jerky, all brands and calorie counts. I move the new product to the back, keeping order by date of expiration. I find a methodic rhythm from bin to hand to shelf then back to bin to hand to shelf then back. 

In this mantra, I fade deep into myself. Customers walk past me and into the cooler; they walk past me and up to the counter. There are buttons and beeps and the clank of a closed drawer. “Have a nice day,” followed by the door. 

Around noon, the sandwiches in the case are hot enough to sell. The hot dogs and taquitos have been circling for an hour and are the perfect temperature too. The syrup for the soda machines is newly replaced and full. 

The regulars come; they gravitate to the counter and say hello to Dad. When they notice I am here, they ooh and aah and exclaim “Is this little Sade?” and lower their hands to the various sizes they last saw me. They tell how Dad would bring me to the truck stop when he first bought it because he and Ma could not afford a sitter. 

“He had two babies,” they say. “You and this place.”

They are men with dirty hats, they are men with belted jeans, ripped shirts, and sleepless eyes; they are women with long nails and curly hair. Everyone just passing through for the day, everyone Dad remembers as family for the twenty minutes it takes their trucks to refuel. They buy coffee, they buy aspirin, they buy cigarettes they forget they cannot light inside. Most of all they are kind.

 At the truck stop we are all outsiders, but mostly we are kind. 

We feel confident enough that we dress for Sunday service. When we arrive, we try to maintain that confidence even as a gun-toting group of people raise Confederate flags and images of Jesus Christ from a film. A few carry megaphones and yell at the churchgoers trying to pass them. Somehow their signs scream louder, decked out in capital letters demanding to be read: JESUS NEEDS YOU TO TAKE HIS PLACE accompanied by the brutal image of a lynching.

We had heard of this happening. We had seen the images on the morning news, the talking heads who called Black Worship a health crisis and who advocated for the protesters to place themselves closer to our gathering. It didn’t feel real at the time, the way nothing on TV feels real. 

We walk on the other side of the street but can’t escape the harassment. They call us Brownies, and they wish they had “an oven to burn you in.” 

Dad places his arms around us. He’s retained muscles even in his middle age. The mob blocks the entrance. They say we are not welcome to gather here; we are not welcome to gather anywhere. With this, Dad has had enough. 

He releases us and shakes open hands. “Why do you say these things?”

Because this is their right as white Americans. 

“Why do you need weapons to say these things?” 

This, too, is their right.

Dad holds desperation in his mouth, and his furrowed brow cracks into his mind. “Have we no rights?” He leaves this conversation for one with God. He looks up, and the sun shines a spotlight. He rises, levitates above the crowd, arms open to the air. “Have we no rights?” His eyes widen. He stares deeply at each protester, and they look horrified. 

They are cowed and silent while my father openly weeps. He has never looked so old or so young. I have seen this resolve in too many faces to know how to place it. He softens. “We have no rights.”

The drive home is long. 

We listen to talk radio, and the anchor’s monotone fades into the rhythmic stroke of road we pass. We place miles between our family and worship. Dad unnerves me with his yearning. It has been a decade since he has openly prayed, and the isolation takes its toll. We feel it. 

The money we were going to donate ends up in the cookie jar that looks more and more rotten each time we grab it off the shelf.

$625.62

Ma comes in and out of the living room to grab more tissues. She cries the whole day while on the phone. I hear small bits of conversation when she enters. She speaks to Grandma, who still lives in swamp country. She speaks to a family friend who moved to Canada a few years ago. She speaks softly because she doesn’t want me to hear, but I know something is wrong. 

When we are down to one tissue, and Ma has cried enough to water the window plants, her bedroom door opens. She invites me to sit next to her with a sheepish smile, trying to regain her composure. She says everything happens for a reason, despite the dampness on her cheeks. 

“Please tell me what’s wrong.”

“What’s wrong?” she scoffs, trying to hold the levee against her tears. “Oh, Sade, wrong is everywhere.”

She turns on the news. The bottom third of the screen becomes banners of text. The bottom banner is black, the middle is white, and the largest on top is highlighted red. Bold capital letters indicate a catastrophe in the city my aunt and cousin live in. 

I don’t want to know what this means. 

Ma says my aunt is fine but can’t get in touch with my cousin, Damien. He was out playing basketball with friends in the area, and no one will tell her if he was a victim or a perpetrator or a witness. They’ve been checking social media and calling anyone they can think of and are coming up blank.

Dad closes the shop early and comes home. He doesn’t drink his tea. We talk in trailing sentences that we don’t want to finish. “Do you think he . . .” or “What if he wasn’t . . .”

The news shows helicopter footage of the police moving into the park. There are a small herd of Black boys. Their eyes glaze over, and their muscles slink off their bones as they move their undead forms toward the officers. They are mowed down with ease. Their bodies fall and are left there. 

I used to babysit Damien; he was a sweet little boy. He always hid his smile from me when we played. We have not seen him in over a year, so I can’t picture what he looks like now. We wait for a phone call, but it doesn’t come. 

Ma cries the whole night, long drawn-out sobs as if she is trying to scream through water. Dad rubs her legs, but it’s as if both are ghosts. I retreat to my room, unsure what to do with myself, and pretend to sleep.

We leave very early for my match so we can go through security. I tell my dad that I don’t want to go. The extra security will be up-close and personal: “They’ll be able to tell we still have teeth.” The illusion of the black paint wears off when looking directly at someone’s mouth.

“Well, are you going to chat up the guard?” I don’t answer. “Then what’s the problem?”

He’s right. The guard at the match is a nice Hispanic woman who smiles the whole time her hands are on me. She asks to touch my shoulders, to inspect the skin on my neck, to touch my knees and to shine a light across my face. She says my hair is pretty and resists comparing me to Serena, which is kind. 

I do some light jogging to get my heart rate up and eat a protein bar before the match. As usual, Coach puts me on singles, for six matches. I don’t think I’ve ever done doubles, so I don’t know why he felt it pertinent to tell me. Maybe he was just searching for something to say while he stood close to me. I prefer the silence. Tennis is a unique opportunity for me to be physically violent, to be loud and grunt with each swing of my racket, and fit in. Tennis is the one place where I know why people are staring at me, and it’s because I’m good, better than good even. 

Tennis is about stamina, keeping the heart rate thrumming loud enough that it becomes a meditation. Without noticing, I pass the sixty-second break and ninety-second and the first match concludes. Coach waves me over to a bench with snacks and Gatorade. When I sit, he moves on to another girl on the court, miming her swings. 

While wiping my sweat, I notice Toothless and his plump shape moving through the bleachers and toward the court. He passes out schedules to everyone. I recognize the red color of the concessions advertisement that takes up one quarter of the paper. When he gets to the bottom, I see a piece of green in the path behind him that no one is picking up. 

Without thinking I walk over and tap the white blob where I think his shoulder might be. He turns around and just stares. The crowd is silent, but they’ve been silent all day. I feel nervous anyway. I hold up the money. I’m not sure the person inside the suit can see what’s in my hand. 

“Umm.” Out of the corner of my eye, I see a small child pointing in my direction while speaking to the security guard. “I think you dropped something.” 

The sun beats down on me. 

Toothless gives a little mascot curtsy and takes the money. The crowd cheers, and when I look behind me, someone from my school has scored twice. I slink back to the bench and wait to play again. My skin grows hot. I drink more Gatorade, but the heat won’t leave me.

My cousin isn’t dead. Ma thanks God every morning for a week after we find out. Thankfully he wasn’t playing basketball that day. Thankfully he is bull-headed and went somewhere he shouldn’t have, to the house of a friend he wasn’t supposed to be around. It wasn’t him on the news; it wasn’t him in the headlines of those who were dead. We are grateful. 

I start having nightmares. I dream my dad and I are walking, sometimes on the sidewalk and sometimes in a store, and are stopped by a little white girl, someone not much younger than me. Her mouth is a siren that wails until someone comes with a gun and points it at my father. I try to say he isn’t infected, but my voice is hoarse, and nothing comes out. Even if I could speak, the siren is too loud. The gun spits.

Dad is always fine when I wake up; we would never go where someone didn’t know him and could vouch for him, but the dream keeps my stomach twisted every day. I think about the boy who took my almonds and wonder if there is an equivalent to bullying in the adult world. There must be. I try not to think about it.

At breakfast Ma is showing off some forgotten culinary skills. She spreads Nutella on some near-perfect crepes and wraps them. She roasts potatoes in the oven and squeezes three oranges into a glass before giving up and pouring some from the carton instead. I think the meal is a combination of happiness and preparing me for the standardized testing of the week. 

We all sit at the table, and they quiz me about random knowledge, everything from naming the original colonies to defining apoptosis. I answer, but they argue over what the right answer is. 

Dad sips his coffee. “Do they have demographic questions on this test?”

Ma doesn’t know and neither do I, but I know what to fill out. 

“Well, if they do, what do you mark?”

“Prefer not to answer.”

“Wrong.” He sets his coffee down. “You mark white. Everyone knows that ‘prefer not to answer’ means you’re Black but don’t want to say it.”

Ma huffs about this familiar stance. “I don’t want her to lie.” 

“They will lie about her score if she marks anything but white, and you know it.” 

They give each other a look that says they will speak about it later. They slip me lunch money, but I slip it into the jar fund, which seems to be growing more slowly these days. 

$650.00

Somehow it is already summer. I spend six days a week helping out at the truck stop. Ma crams herself into a closet and dubs it the manager’s office. She brings in stacks of papers, payrolls, invoices, and continues to think this is the year we finally make everything digital while she struggles with the scanner.

Dad spends the days weighing trucks and fixing broken things, but for a few moments he comes inside to cool off in the AC and eat a snack with me. Our bonding consists mostly of him telling me what still needs to be done. “Switch the roller from breakfast taquitos to hot dogs and make sure to switch out the coffee. What’s there has been there for hours now.” 

We are busier during the summer because more people are on the road. They stop to buy Gatorades and jerky, many asking for the bathroom key and for directions to places I’ve never heard of. I just shrug and remind them that GPS exists. They all pass by in a blur before regulars come in as they always do. 

A regular I know only by his purchase, Winston lights and a coffee, who always pays with exact change, looks a little worse for wear. His skin is ashy, and he wears a collared shirt that seems to irritate his skin because his hand keeps wandering to his neck. “Good afternoon,” I say as he browses a section of the store he’s never been in. 

Picking up a bag of chips, reading its nutritional info. “Hey, young lady, this here is a Black-owned shop, right?”

“Yeah, my parents opened it after I was born.” 

He tilts his head like he’s weighing options. “Well, that’s real good to hear.” He settles on a small package of powdered donuts and grabs a larger cup of coffee. I assume he must be tired based on how slow moving his eyes are. “Y’all hiring?”

He approaches the counter and digs out some crumpled ones and change. His fingers are curled and small. I tell him I’m not sure.

“Let me get my dad in here. One sec.”

I stick my head into the auto shop and call him over. He takes the man outside the store, out of the way of customers. I watch them from the corner of my eye. The man sips his coffee and chatters. My father is setting his jaw, the way he does when he watches the news. He nods his head in affirmation. 

When they come back in, Dad gets into the register and pulls out some money. The man refuses to take it, but Dad forces it into his hand. “You go and find a place to rest your head, come back tomorrow, and we’ll find you something to do.”

The man is joyful. He thanks Dad a million times. I notice his gums look tattered, like red drapes hanging from the roof of his mouth. Suddenly his paleness makes sense, the nervousness, the age of him. His body is about to break down. 

I continue to ring customers out but watch the man until he leaves. With each step his feet drag as if he’s lost the strength to lift them. I’ve never seen someone undead in person. I never knew it would be so mundane, that my life would not be in danger. I’m confused. 

“You look like your mother when you crunch your face,” Dad says. He places his big hand on my shoulder. We look at each other, and I have so many questions that aren’t forming into words. He squeezes me and goes back through the door. 

The following Sunday is hot. It is the hottest weather of the year, and even with our AC on, the sun whips its fire into the apartment in the morning. Dad says it just might be hot enough that the bearded men protesting the church will be gone. 

He’s right. When we get to the street and park, there is no one on the sidewalk. When I squint at the trees, I don’t even see birds. The heat is so oppressive that the air has waves in it, makes everything seem to be melting like in a Salvador Dali painting. Mom clutches our cookie jar in her hand and ushers us inside. 

We’re all still mulling over the man Dad hired—what it means to have a Zombie around, how it will mark us, and how others will see us. Yet when we sit down in church it doesn’t matter. Everyone smiles at us, shaking my parents’ hands and saying hello in a way that is so warm my shoulders relax. 

Someone slips us each a fan as the service starts, and I’m beyond grateful. I wave it in front of my face, but it gives little relief. Reverend Nell asks how we’re doing. He leads us in a few songs but allows us to remain seated, so no one faints. He touches on a few stories of struggle in the community and asks us to pray for each of them. “But someone here has asked to testify.”

Horrifyingly, Ma stands and walks to the front. I look over at Dad, who leans against the pew in front of us. He’s unphased. “Lord, I’m scared,” she announces. “I’m torn between being a good Christian and being a good mother. The two have rarely been at odds.” 

There are affirmations in the crowd, and the choir starts to softly hum behind her. Ma talks about the man we hired. She connects him to my cousin, to the dead bodies on TV, and how this man is still a man who needs a place to work and lay his head. Then she talks about the danger of helping an undead person. “What if someone finds out?” And I think about the kid on the bus. I imagine a fleet of him outside the truck stop, turning gas pumps over like almonds to decide whether my family is a threat. I almost cry.

The sun slithers through the stained-glass windows, and a rainbow of light heats us all. Reverend Nell takes back the helm, and for a moment I think he will tell the same story of help he always tells, the story from the Bible about grafting branches of one tree onto another and loving it enough for it to grow, a bit from Romans. Yet he chooses something else. He speaks about many moments of sacrifice. He says Ma is lucky to be tested, to put her family on the chopping block for the Lord without knowing whether his mind will be changed this time. 

“Who here agrees with Mrs. Green? Will love her family, will pick her up if she falls?” There is a crescendo of applause and hollers. “So let go of your doubts,” he instructs. “Let it all go!” 

Ma lifts the Toothless jar above her head. Its black smile demands ridicule. Ma’s face fills with water as if the jar is as heavy as a statue. Everyone in the room yells “Let it go!” and “We got you!” Even Dad and I join in. 

She flings the jar into the aisle and it busts open, its colorful edges spreading into shards, and the money spills out. The room rejoices. The choir starts, and we all mob toward her, reaching out to offer comfort. 

In this moment, our whole congregation is one. For a moment, I feel completely seen and heard. For a moment, I feel an overwhelming sense of belonging. The heat doesn’t give up; it rises and converges over our mass. When I look around, the humidity in the air distorts the faces, as if our smiles are bent in the air. The air’s thickness makes our forms look like they’re swaying. 

I feel in my heart that it’s a trick of light, my eyes as faulty as a camera’s lens. Someone is testing my faith in my people. I’m given a choice to believe in what others say or to believe in the love that surrounds me. When the sweat rolls down my legs, I let it go.

Sherrel McLafferty is a first-year Rhetoric and Writing student at Bowling Green State University. You can find her poetry in Merrimack Review, Requited Journal, ArLiJo, Notre Dame Review, and Juked. Feel free to visit her website for more information: http://sherrelmclafferty.com