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Noo Yawkas and Congress-critters are telling each other to “shut the f-ck up,” and the police are hunting out-of-staters in RI, FL, and TX. But, let’s take a look at the lighter side, if any, of the current panic:

A Social Distance

Steubenville, Ohio, Saint Patrick’s Day 2020, 6 PM…

A woman was screaming at the top of her lungs. The words were incoherent but her tone and demeanor left no doubt as to her murderous intentions. Another woman, a little older and quieter, had just connected with the emergency operator and frantically pleaded for help. On the floor, two men rolled and wrestled violently. Neither trained or experienced for the encounter, they flailed and tugged; each unsure whether to grapple or strike, they did both with inartful abandon. Nearby, a larger man began shoving several teenagers towards a wall, cursing and spluttering as he did so. It had come to this so rapidly. And it would surely get worse as night fell. Part of the large crowd pressed in closer, jostling with each other – to avail themselves of a better view of the mayhem or, possibly, to join it. Others, having no desire for brutality, began to depart the scene.

Seeing his chance, he darted through the madness and ran a short distance. He quickly glanced over his shoulder. Someone, maybe another irate woman, yelled something about “go ahead and run!” He didn’t care so long as he was temporarily free. He had a job to do. Turning away he again scanned the environment. It wasn’t his usual neighborhood and he would have been out of place on a good day. Just then, as he started to recover his wits, a crazed man in a medical mask rushed by in a frenzy. Rammed almost to the ground, he jumped up. He resisted the urge to say anything and kept moving. He was also resisting the calls of his own better judgment: “Just get out of there, you fool!” He’d never in his life been in war nor any serious criminal altercation. As he ducked and dodged forward, he wondered if his luck would run out. He fully expected gunfire to ring out at any moment.

Then, when from behind the shouting, screaming, and sounds of physical objects being broken reached a frantic peak, he came to a corner. Turning it, he beheld utter devastation. It was like the views of some third-world country in the midst of a civil war that one sometimes sees on the evening news: he was about to enter an area of desolation and despair. He did so at a run, fast enough (he thought) not to become a target, but slow enough (he hoped) to allow his senses to process the survivors – if there were any left. 

Foot by torturous foot, he made his way – as quickly though carefully as possible – through a sea of destruction, down a veritable bombed-out street. He knew it had been quaint and civilized just hours earlier. The thoughts, augmented by the whirling fury around him, made him sick. What has become of us! he asked himself. Portions of a lunch too hastily consumed ventured to the back of his mouth. He fought the urge to vomit. He fought the stronger urge to make a break for safety. To say things were looking black would have been an understatement. Here, here of all places where it should have been, he found only chaos and the crumpled remains of civilization. Only when he was about to give in to all his urges, to abandon his desperate quest, did a ray of hope shine in like the sun through dark clouds: he saw something! No, it wasn’t what he’d come for, what he expected, or even what he thought might be useful. But, damn it, it was all he had now. Figuring any alternative would make do under the circumstances, he reached out his free hand and grabbed it. He grabbed it and ran! Now! Now, he pursued a speed he had not known since his days in college and that failed tryout for the varsity track team. This time around, his prize might well be his life. He knew that and made use of all his cascading fears and all his remaining energy.

A moment later he was rewarded. This thing, made so precious by the insanity of his fallen world, along with the other odd bits and pieces of things he’d found in a pinch, was finally and truly his. The monetary price, small though it was, did not matter. Ten times the value he would have paid and happily. The extra plastic bags he snagged, almost as an afterthought, were the icing on the sour cake. He had made it through the gauntlet of death! Phone in hand, he collapsed into the comfort of his waiting SUV, somewhere out there in the vast Kroger parking lot.

‘Honey! Honey,’ he cried into the small, flat glass screen, ‘I found some! They were all out of toilet paper, but I got a box of Kleenex. The last one. It’s a small square one, but it’s better than nothing. I love you, baby, I love you!’

‘Todd,’ Claire asked with mild annoyance in her voice, ‘where are you?’

‘Kroger. Steubenville,’ Todd gasped as another police car screeched to a stop nearby. ‘On my way back, I tried everywhere. The Kroger and the Shop ‘n Save in Weirton. Even Walmart. All I could find was a little four-pack. A roll of paper towels. Some canned tuna. No… No hand sanitizer anywhere. It’s a wasteland out-’

‘Todd Vispoli!’ Claire said, the annoyance crystal clear now; ‘It’s time you came home. I’m cooking supper and Bryson wants to toss the football around. Ruthie wants to play cheerleader. And Lizzy has a question about something. I need my husband and the kids need their father. Quit playing soldier and come home!’

‘Okay, okay, baby,’ he panted as he watched more police cars and a firetruck enter the lot. ‘But, it’s going to get rough. We need toilet paper. Basics. Tom Ironsides, my new friend, said it’s going to get really ugly. Already is. I just saw people trying to kill each other for grits and bacon. Not a loaf of bread left in the store-’

‘Todd, my dear,’ Claire said with a bit more understanding in her voice, ‘we know that. It’s all on the news – all that’s on. You didn’t need a CIA spook to tell you. I asked you not to go to Pittsburgh in the first place. Remember?’

Todd thought back to the weekend and her advice that the conference would probably be cut short even if it was allowed to commence. As he watched an officer retrieve a rifle from the trunk of a Dodge Charger, he shifted into reverse and prepared to depart. ‘You were right, you were right,’ he said. ‘We were wrapping up a panel discussion when the cops and the health inspector shut it down. Tom and I went to a bar – you’d remember it, Marv’s place on the river – for beer and sandwiches. But, we’d just started eating when the police came in and ordered everyone out. I was a little afraid we’d get arrested or something. They had many harsh words for Marv.

‘Anyway, as we were walking out the front door, these two FBI agents approached and wanted to talk to Tom. “Colonel,” they said, “we’ve got some really bad news. Need your input on some things,” they said. He talked with them for a few minutes, half of it in whispers. He seemed almost amused and kept telling them, “I just don’t care.” Then, they said something that got his attention, something about it backfiring and the Omega Section, whatever that is. All of a sudden, Tom got really serious. Before he left with the G-men, he told me to head straight home but to maybe stock up before I got to the house. He said there was about to be panic – but not for the right reasons – and that things like toilet paper would be in short supply. He said we might be locked down for a while. Said it might turn into martial law – or worse. I’ve been looking for tee-pee since I left Pittsburgh. Tough luck out here.’

‘Well,’ she said, ‘I did my big monthly shopping a few days ago, while you were packing. Then, this morning, based on the ordinary news reports, I decided to do a follow-up. Riesbeck’s in Anytown had plenty of toilet paper, paper towels and everything else. We’re set for a good three months, maybe longer. I’m a prepper if you recall.’

‘And, thank God, baby!’ he said with relief as he pulled onto the highway, passing an ambulance and more police cars, all with sirens blaring and lights flashing. ‘I’ll be home in thirty minutes. Tell Bryce to be ready.’ He thought for a second and then asked, ‘Hey, in all your prepper readings and so forth, did you ever hear anything about this Omega whatever?’

‘We’ll all be ready when you arrive, dear,’ she said. ‘Omega? No, sweetie. Sounds like a big hoax to me.’