I don’t know how much more of this I can take.
I try to keep to myself, stay out of crowds, but sometimes you just can’t avoid them. Sometimes you gotta get to the corner store to buy that pack of smokes before the jitters fray your nerves and you smell the smells you just can’t stand to smell anymore, and...
This lady tried to snag me. Grabbed at me, straight outta nowhere, like I was her property or somethin’. Like she had a right to me. Not some crackhead, neither. Middle-class dame, yellow cardigan lookin’ worn and wrinkled, but still made up. Still tryin’ to believe in a better world.
“C’mon, darling!” she said to me, tears in her perfect blue eyes. “Just a little!”
Hells no, lady. I ain’t fallin’ for that again. I flip her off and keep movin’.
This part of town’s not what you’d call affluent. When the first warnings hit, they didn’t rush out and buy all the hand sanitizer they could fit in their SUVs because they don’t got SUVs. Hell, most of ‘em couldn’t afford even one bottle of hand sanitizer. Not then. Certainly not now.
I can see ‘em watching me. Sizing me up. Figurin’ me out. Am I too rough? Or just rough enough? You can see the greed in their eyes.
A bus stops right near me, so I hop on the back doors and give the scavengers a pass. I don’t got a Presto card to pay with, but that’s OK. Fare inspectors ran outta masks weeks ago, and the drivers just wanna get home alive. Caution tape keeps us monsters six feet back, just in case. As if a cough really cares about tape.
I settle into a seat across from this nurse who looks like she’s been working non-stop for days on end, which I suppose is probably true. She’s got one earbud in, staring off into the distance like her body fell asleep and forgot to tell her eyes. Haven’t seen many medical professionals lately. At least not in daylight. It’s kinda spooky, to be honest.
“You had it yet?” she asks, without changing where she’s looking.
“Nope,” I say, hoping that’ll do.
“Immune?” she asks.
“I dunno,” I say. “Maybe. Probably. What’s it matter, really?”
She smiles like it’s a joke, pulls the one earbud free. Carly Rae Jepsen. Good Time. Right.
“You know what I miss?” she asks. “You know what I really miss?”
I know where this is going, and I don’t want none of it. I push the button, but the damn bus stops at a red. A long red. Empty streets, but we’re stuck here anyway.
“I miss pizza,” she says. “Not like home-made or artisan or anything fancy. I miss cheap and easy pizza, off a cardboard tray, half-heated and dripping grease.”
“Sounds like a health hazard,” I say, and she laughs.
“I miss eating health hazards instead of meeting them.”
“Yeah,” I say, and check to see how long it’ll be before the bus moves again. Not soon enough.
“I miss thinking grease on my scrubs was the worst that could happen,” she says, looking down at her stained, faded uniform. “Scrubbing spots with...with...” She starts to cry, and I’m pretty close to jumping out a window to escape. “I miss toilet paper,” she says. “I miss toilet paper so much.”
She looks at me, point blank, and takes a shaky breath. “How thick are you?”
“Aw come on, lady,” I say, backing up against the back of my seat. “Don’t do this.”
“I’ll be gentle,” she says. “I promise. I can be gentle.”
I pull on the cord to ask for a stop, but it makes no difference. We’re almost there, but it’s just not close enough.
“Just a little,” she says, standing carefully like she’s afraid she’s gonna spook me more than I already am. “I can feed you afterwards. How’s that sound? A little food for a little w—”
She reaches for me, and that’s all I can take. I smack her hand back as best I can and jump off my seat just as the bus jerks to a stop. The doors won’t open unless you push the yellow bar, but I’m not tall enough to reach on my own, and the driver sure as hell doesn’t realize what’s goin’ on past the caution tape, so I—
“C’mon, little guy...” says the nurse, and lunges for me. I dodge it—barely—and she collides with the doors, tumbling to the ground. Thankfully, she hit the yellow bar hard enough to open me an exit. I dash outside and run for cover.
I can hear her weeping as the bus drives away.
Can’t say I feel guilty, but I do feel bad.
I stick to the shadows the rest of the way. Takes longer, but it cuts down on unexpected detours. Or terminal ones.
There’s a guy passed out on the front steps of the corner store, a near-empty bottle of Fireball in his hand. Looks like he smells awful, but hey, who’m’I to judge, really? I do my best to let him sleep, try to slip in the door without wakin’ him.
Except the door doesn’t budge. It’s locked. The damn corner store is closed.
“Kid tested positive,” says the man out of nowhere, scaring the bejeezus outta me. “He was the only one working anymore, so they closed it all up.”
I hang back a safe distance from the man, but I don’t run just yet. Because as stinky as he is, there’s a definite scent I recognize. Cigarettes. Might not be a wasted trip after all.
“You been here long?” I ask.
“A few days,” says the man, then looks at me properly for the first time and says: “You s’posed to be a shamrock?”
Gotta say, feels good to have that be the first question I get, for a change. Not “how many plys are you?” or “two squares, or three?” It’s like I’m bein’ seen for who I am, not what I can do.
“Yeah,” I say. “Construction paper shamrock. With arms and legs.”
“Got a name?”
No one’s ever asked me that before. “Harvey,” I say. “Though folks call me Weird-ass Shamrock.”
“Harvey,” he says, then pats his chest. “Dennis.” He scratches his chin as a thought comes to him: “You know St Patrick’s Day is over.” I can tell he’s not sure how long ago that was. “You run away from home?”
“Blew away,” I say. “They taped me to the front door, but the wind snapped me up and just whoosh!” My accordion arm does a whirly-twirly motion into the sky.
“Wild ride,” says the man.
“Not as wild as when I landed,” I say, and he grunts, holds out the bottle for me.
“Want a drink?” he asks.
“Nah,” I say, because I know better than to get close to people.
He sets the bottle on the ground between us, scooches away. “Need a drink?”
I eye the bottle. Eye the man. Smell the smoke on his clothes.
The Fireball cuts through my trauma like a steak knife through boiled potatoes. Two sips in, and I don’t even remember why I’m crinkled like this, or bent like that. Four sips in, and I even forget to stay out of reach of humans. Like I’m invincible. Like humans’ve got humanity after all.
“You got a smoke?” I ask, setting the bottle down with my wibbly-wobbly arms.
The man gives me a curious look. “You won’t catch on fire?” he asks.
“You really care either way?” I ask.
“Fair point,” he says, and pulls a cigarette from his pocket and hands it over. He lights it with a shaking hand, and I take a long drag and doesn’t exactly fix me, but makes me feel fixed.
“What’d you do, before the outbreak?” I ask, blowing smoke into the pristine air.
“Barista,” he says, dragging the bottle back to take a swig.
“Ooo,” I commiserate. “That’s gotta suck.”
“Could be worse,” he says with a shrug. “People might wanna wipe their ass with me.”
“Touché,” I say, and take another drag.
A few moments pass where neither of us say a thing, and neither of us move. It’s a weird feeling, being at peace. I haven’t had peace for 27 days. Feels wrong.
“So I gotta ask,” I say, as the cigarette winds down. “Cards on the table: you gonna try snatching me for some number-two adventurin’ when this is done?”
He laughs—which does not make me feel better—and shakes his head. “Nah, I’m good,” he says. “You’re safe.”
“You just like the scent of feces or somethin’?” I ask.
He laughs. “Don’t need wiping,” he says. “Haven’t for years now.”
I dunno what kind of weird utopia this guy’s from, but I have to admit he’s piqued my interest. “How’s that?” I ask.
And then Dennis, the lay-about former barista in a world gone wrong, he tells me about a thing called a bidet. And after I’m done laughing at him and humanity as a whole, I get to thinking, and...
Of the two options, I like the second. The lighting brings out the green a little better, and the shadows catch my crinkles just so. The copy’s a little meh, though: “How a paper shamrock turned a poop apocalypse into Wall Street’s brightest star.”
I mean it’s crap... but if there’s one thing I can handle. it’s crap.
Written for Jillian with the topic: “Harvey the shamrock fears for his life during the age of no toilet paper (and covid)” — based on the following charming fellow...