I settle in, just before noon, at one of Zip’s outdoor tables, a plastic picnic table set on an eight-foot square of Astroturf. My square is one of eight such squares, creating a makeshift patio in what was formerly the parking lot in front of Zip’s old-time silver diner. Each has a table shaded by its own pop-up canopy tent, like the ones used in craft fairs. I’ve chosen a corner table, on the opposite side of the patio from the parking lot and closest to the diner. It’s the perfect location to people watch.
Only three of the other tables are occupied, but I notice that none of the occupants are wearing masks. Of course, it’s not required when seated at a table. Still, I reach up to give a twist to the straps on my mask, rehanging them around my ears, fastening the mask tighter to my face.
I’m here waiting for my friend Eva to get her hair cut at the salon across the street; it’s the only shop open in that plaza. Then we’ll drive, in our separate cars, to the river for a couple hours kayaking before it starts raining. Eva likes to keep her dark hair short and sleek with a signature flashy gray streak; it needs cutting at least every three weeks under normal circumstances. She was first in line when hairdressers opened up. Eva is younger than I. I’m more cautious, old enough to be considered part of the at-risk population. I’ve been content to let my hair grow until I’m comfortable with the level of risk that a haircut entails, even if it does blow around in ever wilder and crazier disarray.
Three servers, all young women, are dashing around, each with their own individual style of mask. The one who comes to take my order is young, high school age maybe. She’s tiny, small-boned, and graceful like a dancer or gymnast. Her mask, maroon with a Zip’s logo tucked discreetly near her ear, neatly covers her nose and mouth and is pulled tight across her delicate cheekbones. My mask is carefully pulled up over my face. I order iced coffee, then add a piece of pie, because I feel badly about making her work for so little.
At the table in front and to the left of me two women have just finished an early lunch. Their server brings them back their credit card and receipt. Her mask, a white pleated fabric, like the ones they’ve just started selling at Walgreens, has a smile hand-drawn on its front, but she wears it covering only her mouth. One woman signs the slip and hands it back to the server, then they both stand up to leave. One turns to the other, saying something; the other woman laughs and raises her arms to draw her friend into a close embrace. Then they break apart and head towards opposite ends of the parking lot. My stomach clenches at the close contact, but secretly, I’m jealous. I haven’t hugged a friend since before the shutdown.
The third server, a vivacious blond woman, possibly college age or a bit older, is chatting up a couple of older gray-haired men at the furthest table. She clearly is clueless about what to do with her mask. An ordinary blue surgical mask, like the one I’m wearing, it’s over her mouth when she walks over to the table. She pulls it down under her chin as she takes their order. One of them must make some comment about it, as she, laughing, unhooks it from one ear and leaves it hanging from the other. Then, having finished taking their order, she puts her pen and pad in one hand, pulls her mask off and dangles it from her free hand, as she continues to talk and laugh with the men.
I feel a little foolish, so carefully masked, but angry too. Don’t these people know that masks are the best tools available to keep from spreading the virus if we want to even start interacting with other people? Don’t the customers care that they might infect one of the young people waiting on them, or the servers care about the customers enough to wear their masks properly?
A youngish man, early thirties, I guess, enters the patio at the opposite end from my square. He’s tall, slim, dressed in shorts and a sleeveless black t-shirt, shaved head with a hint of stubble, wraparound sunglasses. He looks around, arrogance in the tilt of his chin, then walks with a slight swagger under the canopy of the table in the far corner, takes off his sunglasses, sets them on the table, then turns to walk back towards the parking lot he came from. As he walks out of the seating area, I see him pull up a black knit mask I hadn’t seen, from around his neck. One of those neckwarmer styles.
My gaze shifts back to the young blond server, still laughing with the older men, her mask in her hand. They must be regulars. She makes some final comment, and one of the men waves her off. I watch her pull her mask back on over her head and head towards the steps of the diner to place their order. My server brings me my iced coffee. After she leaves, I pull down my mask and take a sip. It’s cold and creamy; the ice cubes rattle in the plastic glass.
I look again towards the far table, surprised to see the young man with an attitude gently assisting an older man with a walker onto the Astroturf and into a chair at the end of their table. The older man takes off his cap and lays it on the table. Pa is the spitting image of his son, same shape bald head, only his stubble is white, not light brown. His black t-shirt has sleeves, and his shades are wire-rimmed, not wraparound. He too, is wearing a neckwarmer mask that matches his t-shirt. His son walks around the table and sits on the opposite side.
I’ve finished my coffee and half my pie and left an unreasonably large tip for my server. Silent thanks for her mask. The mask averse blond has moved over to talk with the man sitting at the table directly in front of me, another older man wearing a Barden Builders t-shirt, curly gray hair, like mine, long overdue for a haircut. The young woman’s mask now adorns her neck.
As I stand up to leave, I hear her say, “I just got tickets to the Trump Rally.”
“That’s in Portsmouth, right?” says he.
“Yes, New Hampshire. We’re driving up tomorrow morning. Have to get there early; a ticket doesn’t necessarily guarantee you a spot.” She skips a step forward and back, a small dance of excitement.
Although I’ve walked past their table now, I can’t help but turn back to look at them. I catch the young woman’s eye. “Wear a mask!” I say. She looks startled, hauls her mask over her face, then looks directly at me and slowly and defiantly pulls it down again.
“It’s all right. We know each other,” she says, putting her hand on the older man’s shoulder. “Rob’s like family.”
The man nods agreement. But that’s not my major concern.
“I meant at the rally,” I say. “They’re just now reporting major spikes in Tulsa.”
She looks at me with a wide-eyed, blank expression. “In New Hampshire?” she asks, clearly not making the connection between Tulsa and Trump rallies.
“No, Tulsa, Oklahoma, where they had the last Trump rally two weeks ago. Now they’re seeing a major spike in the Coronavirus.”
Rob nods, he’s heard this too, it seems.
She tosses her head and turns it away from me. “Oh, I’m not afraid. I’m not going to catch anything.”
I suck in my breath, the mantle of my grandmother falls over me and I can hear her sharp acerbic voice in my head, telling truths I never wanted to hear. Words spoken with love, but words that cut, tearing holes in the hard shell of adolescent and young adult superiority. Before her words can come out of my mouth, a voice speaks over my right shoulder.
“Put your damned mask on, Nikki.”
A deep red flush crawls up from behind the mask slung around her neck, across her cheeks and up to the tips of her ears. Tentative fingers tug her mask up over her mouth and nose. Her eyes are fixed over my shoulder, bright with tears of embarrassment, but her body leans towards whoever it is behind me.
“Steve,” she says.
I step backwards to the far side of the walkway and turn slightly to my right so I can see who this new person is. It’s the young man, who was sitting with his father. With his knit neck- warmer mask pulled up over his face he looks like a masked avenger. My eyes flick over to his table where I see his father, twisted in his seat watching our group. His mask, too, is pulled over his face. My server places two glasses on their table and lays straws beside them.
I turn back to the group beside me. The young man has approached to the edge of the Astroturf.
“Uh, Rob, this is Steve,” says Nikki to the man seated at the table. “He’s my older brother’s best friend. Rob works a lot with my dad,” she says to Steve.
Rob nods in acknowledgement, holds out his hand, then stops, pulls it halfway back and mimics a handshake.
I can see the young man’s eyes glinting as, in return, he twists his hand in an odd sort of wave.
Nikki’s eyes stay fixed on Steve’s face.
Steve turns to look at Nikki. His voice is completely neutral. “Your rally’s been cancelled.”
“What?” She shakes her head. “What do you mean? How do you know?”
“I have a source. You’ll hear it on the news, or he’ll tweet about it in the next hour, I imagine.”
“But why?” Her hand moves up to fiddle with her mask, but she leaves it on.
“Official word is because of the coming storm, Tropical Storm Fay.”
“But that storm’s not even going to make it to New Hampshire and even if it did, it’s going to be over by tomorrow morning. I checked the weather report.”
I’m surprised she’d even thought about the weather.
“That’s the official word.” He shrugs. “My source says it’s because the numbers are low. If they pull even fewer people than Tulsa, he’s afraid it will look bad, and damage his campaign.”
“That’s not fair!” Nikki spits back. “He’s just concerned about people traveling, I bet.”
“That’s what your newsfeed will say, I’m sure.” Steve places a slight emphasis on ‘your.’
“And your ‘news’ will say anything to make him look bad. That paper you work for hates his guts. Always writing those lies. Making like this pandemic is going to kill us all. Maybe it is, but not because we’re going to get sick. It’s all this stay-at-home business, sucking the life out of us.”
She looks sideways at Rob, seated at the table, but he’s staying out of this.
“Is that why you were going to the rally, Nikki.” Steve’s voice sounds gentle to me, maybe a hint of hope in it, or am I just a sentimental old woman looking for a happy ending.
“Yes. I thought it would be fun, something different to do. To get away from all this.” She swings her arm around pointing to the nearly empty parking areas beside the diner and in front of the shuttered stores across the street. “I wanted to be with a lot of people, people who just want to have a good time and yell and scream, and cheer for something for a change. Can’t you see?”
He sighed. “Doesn’t it matter to you what they are cheering about, Nikki? Hatred, and racism and dividing people, pitting them one against the other.”
“That’s not true,” she shoots back. “It’s about supporting our values, and loving our country, and making it great.”
People’s emotions are hard to read when masks cover their mouths and muffle the shadings in their voices. Steve doesn’t say anything for a moment, but he turns slightly away to look back towards his father, still seated at the far table. With a mask on and his dark glasses, and at that distance, it’s impossible to know what the old man is thinking. Steve turns back to Nikki.
“How is it making anything great when we have disease we don’t have a cure for, that is making literally millions of people sick, killing more than a hundred thousand in this country alone, and the only way to stop it is to not breathe in each other’s faces. If you caught the virus in Portsmouth, maybe you wouldn’t get very sick, but you would bring it back here and infect any number of people, like Rob here, or your parents or anyone who comes here to eat. Zip’s might have to close again, and how does that help you or anyone else?”
He stops and steps backwards. I watch him take a deep breath, as if to keep himself from saying more.
Nikki shrugs her shoulders, but I can see by the way she partly turns her head away to keep from looking at him, that it’s a defensive move.
“I was going to the rally too,” Steve continues, “as a reporter. But I’m not sorry it’s been canceled. The risk is huge, even wearing a mask.”
Nikki finds her voice.
“Well, if the rally’s been canceled, at least I won’t have to read another one of your stupid articles. Always sneering at us.”
“I didn’t know you read my stories.” Is that surprise in Steve’s voice?
“Only...” She stops, then continues, “I mean, I don’t, but sometimes people tell me about them.”
A snort comes from behind Steve’s mask. He looks as if he is about to take a step towards her. Then he looks back towards his father. I follow his gaze. The old man had turned back to the table and was struggling to get the paper off his straw. I notice my server walking back over to him, holding out her hand for the straw. He hands it to her, and she taps it on the table pushing one end through the paper covering. Holding the covered end, she extends the bare end towards the old man, who takes it between his finger and thumb, holding it as she pulls the paper off the other end. It looks like they’re snapping a Christmas cracker, and I imagine they’re both laughing by this time. My server crumples up the covering and stuffs it in her pocket, giving him a wave as she walks away. He turns back to the table and puts the straw in his glass. I look back at the group across from me.
“I have to get back,” Steve says.
“Say hi to your Dad from me,” Nikki says quickly, wistfully. “I so wanted to go over to give him a hug when you guys walked in.”
“You stay over here.” The words come out sharply, and he spins away, walking quickly back to his father. Nikki’s gaze follows him back to his table, then she turns slowly back to Rob, who continues to remain silent.
“Got to get back to work, Rob,” she says, in a tone implying that the day, going forward, held nothing but dreariness. “Can I get you anything else.” Rob shakes his head. Mask carefully in place, she picks up his glass and plate and walks past me towards the diner, with no acknowledgement that I even exist.
I look at Rob, who is looking after Nikki like a concerned parent.
“She’s a nice girl, really,” he says looking over at me, as if, somehow, I was owed an apology.
“She’s young.” I hear my grandmother’s words in my head. It’s a curable disease. But that’s not quite what I want to say. There was more than that going on here. “She’s learning,” is what comes out of my mouth.
Rob reaches into his pocket and pulls out a red bandanna, which he proceeds to fold into a triangle and tie neatly behind his head.
“We wear these on the job site if we’re working close together,” Rob says, perhaps sensing my surprise. “A lot of the guys have wives who are health care workers; they don’t want to risk them getting sick. They tell me they’ve seen enough family and friends get Coronavirus that they understand how dangerous it is. But when I come here, and none of the other customers are wearing masks, I feel stupid if I put mine on.” He adjusts his bandanna and looks past me towards Nikki disappearing into the diner. I twist my head just in time to see the door swing shut behind her. Rob turns back to me.
“But then, who are they supposed to learn from?” He stands up and pulls his wallet from his pocket.
I tell him to have a nice day and to stay safe, then head back to my car, keys in my hand. I wonder whether this interaction represents progress. Will Nikki take Steve’s words to heart, or will she gather after work with her like-minded friends to share a few beers and reinforce each other’s grievances? I want to walk over to Steve’s table and tell him to call her, arrange a date, even if it has to be virtual. She obviously has some caring instincts, even if she doesn’t get that the pandemic is real. Maybe she just needs different friends.
The click of the car door lock brings me back to reality. I get in the car and pull the mask from my face with a sigh of relief, stuffing it into the door pocket, then slather my hands with sanitizer from the bottle in the console. I take a deep breath. I just stopped for iced coffee; now I’m headed to the river. This is my life. I’m not in charge of theirs.
I turn the key, back out of the parking space, and head out of the parking lot. Across the street, Eva is just coming out of the salon, heading for her car with our blue and yellow kayaks, like colorful feathers, strapped on top.