Pandemic Party Time!
by Rebecca Jung
I live alone in quarantine, so I read, write, and binge-watch pandemic movies about people in quarantine.
I watch animal videos on Facebook and take an online course in birding.
I feed the birds. Then I watch squirrels steal the birds’ food.
And I watch my neighbors.
Mostly, I watch my neighbors.
Before the pandemic, I didn’t know many of them, but by the time this all blows over, I’ll be well acquainted with them by seeing how they work, how they love, and how they fight over toilet paper, sanitary wipes, and bottled water.
Then, when this lockdown is lifted, I’ll have an Apres Pandemic Party.
I’ll open windows, the front and back doors, and let a breeze blow through my house. I’ll strip my victory garden bare—basil, rosemary, tomatoes, and lavender. I’ll make bowls of pesto; plates of rosemary focaccia; platters of tomatoes—whole, so you have to pick them up, bite into them, and let them burst in your mouth, juice and pulp dribbling down your chin. I’ll make lavender-honey ice cream. I’ll shove and kick open my backyard wooden gate. I’ll want people to stream through my front door and spill out the back into the street.
All will be welcome.
Except you, Maria.
Maria lives next door and piles her garbage on top of mine.
One time she threw an old stained mattress on my sidewalk for pickup.
Spring, summer and fall, Maria waits until I leave my house. Then she goes into my backyard and helps herself to my daisies, roses, and phlox until my backyard is stripped bare as her old mattress.
“Oh, I didn’t think you’d mind, you got so many flowers,” she says, blowing cigarette smoke out the side of her mouth. She doubles over, wracked with a tubercular cough, then spits on the sidewalk.
"Such a pretty garden," she says, and spits more.
Maria shuffles up and down our street in her plastic sandals and socks, spreading gossip and misinformation like a virus. Her hair is orange and so wispy her smooth white scalp shows underneath.
Shortly after I moved in, she told me the Lewinski family across the street had rats.
“They get on the beds and scare the kids. Somebody said them rats get on the table and eat the kids’ food.” Maria shook her head and exhaled cigarette smoke through her nostrils.
“They need an exterminator,” I said.
“I gotta cousin who does that,” Maria said. “He could maybe get rid of them rats.”
A couple days later, Nick, my neighbor on the other side, asked me if I had rats.
“No,” I said. "Why?"
“Maria has a cousin who’s an exterminator,” he said. “He could help you out.”
Nick is in his 70s and retired. He used to work on movie and television sets around Pittsburgh, including Mister Roger’s Neighborhood.
Nick had a small role in the Mister Roger’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
You may have seen him.
Nick’s the one who drops his pants and moons the camera.
When he picked up his free CD of the movie, he asked the woman who gave it to him if she thought it would get him laid.
Nick loves to tell this story. He tells it over and over.
Whenever I sit in my backyard and try to read in the shadow of the wisteria, Nick comes out and leans on the banister of his porch.
“Hey girl, watcha readin’? Is it a girlie book?”
I keep reading. I say, “No. It’s Margaret Atwood.”
“Got any sex in it?” he says.
Nick’s not coming to my party, either.
Whenever I walk past Maria’s house, she steps from the porch shadows where she always seems to be lurking.
“Hey, pretty lady,” she says. “Nick and me was just talkin’ ‘bout you. How you doin’?”
“Fine, I’m fine,” I say and keep walking. “How about you?”
“Oh, you know,” she says, sighing. “I got good days. Some not so good.”
“Sorry to hear that,” I say, and walk faster.
“Hey, where you goin’?”
“Paris,” I say.
One day it’s Paris, the next Madrid.
“So lucky,” she yells after me. “Wish I could go somewhere.”
Despite Maria, most people in my neighborhood don’t want to go anywhere else.
Our neighborhood is filled with beautiful old Victorian houses. My house still has gaslight fixtures on the third floor. Most of the windows on the first floor are stained glass or leaded, and there are gas fireplaces with cast iron inserts in the living and dining rooms, the master bedroom, and the guestroom, but none of them work.
Houses here are in high demand, especially since Google built an empire in East Liberty.
Google employees imported from California are eager to move into Highland Park and nearby neighborhoods. Then they gentrify the area by tearing down our old brick Victorians and replacing them with boxy gray condos.
Lately I’ve been getting postcards from people who want to buy my house. So the other day when I got a letter in a handwritten envelope, I figured it was from someone who wanted to take my home off my hands.
Instead, it was a Scarlet Letter from a local real estate owner:
Dear Wellesley Avenue Property Owner,
I am a third generation Highland Park property owner and Peabody High School grad. I am helping my friend Frank McNutt repair, paint and fix up his house by your property.
Some of the houses need to be cleaned and spruced up to increase property values.
Kindly consider improving your property. I can recommend a good repair and painting crew.
Or please consider selling your property. I will buy it as is with no commission.
I don’t like anyone who bullies people into selling their homes so they can flip them.
I also don’t like Peabody High School grads named Benton.
I’ve never met Frank McNutt, but I don’t like him either, because he's friends with someone named Benton.
Also, what the hell kind of name is McNutt?
I wrote Benton back:
Dear Benton (Third Generation Highland Park Property Owner and Peabody High School Grad),
I’d like you to consider the following:
· Do not patronize me with a ploy to drum up business for your real estate business and friends.
· Do not send me any more self-righteous admonitions about the state of my property. Any attempt to shame me was debunked by your woefully inept writing.
· And lastly, I ask you to kindly consider fucking off.
Wellesley Avenue Property Owner
Benton Motherall will not be invited to my party.
Neither will Frank McNutt.
Most evenings, ever since the pandemic began, I walk two blocks up to Bryant Avenue where Roger sits on the tiny porch of his row house and plays his saxophone.
Because of the quarantine, the streets and sidewalks are empty. The neighborhood is quiet, given over to Roger and his sax.
Roger is a thin Afro-LatinX man with a cloud of hair and nice quarantine outfits -- pressed shirts, Warby-Parker-esque glasses, and fashion combat boots.
I say this because lately people’s interest in their appearance and being fashionable has become lax, except for their masks.
When I’m out, I sometimes see people and ask where they got their masks.
Some masks are covered with sequins. Others have sayings, like “Keep Calm and Stay 6 Feet Away.”
I like the ones with animal mouths on them.
When this is over, I’m going to stock up on rabbit-mouth masks.
A.A. Milne, who wrote Winnie the Pooh, knew rabbits.
“Hallo, Rabbit,” Pooh said, “is that you?”
"Let’s pretend it isn’t,” said Rabbit, “and see what happens.”
The other day, in line at the grocery, I saw a man wearing headgear that looked like a gasmask from World War I -- a full-face N95 respirator with two-2097 particulate filters on either side.
Up until then, I’d only heard and read about them.
I stared at it.
“Sorry, but it’s the first one I’ve seen,” I said.
He looked down at me and nodded, like an astronaut ready to colonize Mars.
I’ll bet he gets that a lot.
My facemask is plain, strictly utilitarian. It doesn’t fit, so my glasses fog. I keep tugging the mask up over my nose, which isn’t easy, because I wear nitrile gloves that are too big.
The ends of the fingers droop like they’re melting.
Tonight, when Roger is playing, a young man in blue scrubs sits on one of the porch steps. He is turned towards the sax.
Above his mask, the young man's eyes are closed, and I imagine his face, that stranger, beatific with the music.
With his long hair, he looks like a disciple, in love with the music of our strange new world.
In case you're worried, everyone in Roger’s audience wears a mask.
Google aside, this is still a working-class neighborhood, which means there are no sequined masks, no witty sayings, no animal mouths.
My neighbors wear standard-issue masks for health professionals because most of them, I’ve learned, either work in hospitals or have family members who do.
Everyone wears masks because it’s the law, but even if it wasn’t, I like to think that most of us – except Maria and Nick, who aren't here whatever – care deeply for one another.
When I look around, I want all of these humans at my apres pandemic party.
Especially Roger, whom I love most of all.
Roger can’t wear a mask and play his sax.
I know you might worry about that.
No one can make beauty and hide behind a mask.
Rebecca Jung is a writer and poet whose work has been published in literary journals, including Memoir, Sky Island Journal, MiPo, Pennsylvania Review, Purple Clover, The Burningword, Evening Street Review, The Write Launch, and The Impetus. Her poetry has appeared in books, including: Along These Rivers: Poetry and Photography from Pittsburgh; and Burningword Ninety-Nine, A Selected Anthology of Poetry, 2001-2011. She earned a B.A. in art history from Kent State University, and a B.A. in English Writing from The University of Pittsburgh. She lives in Pittsburgh, where she shares an old Victorian house with Cassie, her feisty rescue rabbit. If you're a kind human or rabbit, you can come to her pandemic party. Not you, McNutt.