“Targets,” a Bad Survivalist essay by Kay Smith-Blum


WHO BREAKS THEIR ARM PLANTING bulbs? Well, technically, I was retrieving bulbs, from a box on the other side of the low-rise-industrial-wire fence they put up around small urban gardens at street level to keep out the dogs that don’t keep out the dogs. Why build a fence just high enough for me to trip over? The annoying answer targets me, like mother nature’s sniper: most wouldn’t trip over it. Tripping is a visceral confirmation of old age, a not-so-steady-but-sure march to death, bringing with it the accidents of toddlerhood.

The virus is also on the march and the Governor has closed all pools eliminating the aquatic option to recovery. So, here I am—albeit four staggeringly painful and miraculous-in-the-fact-my-bone-healed-at-my-age months later—in physical therapy, a risky proposition.

Kat, my physical therapist, announced on Tuesday I should have worn a mask. They had sent an email. One I deleted before reading as I do most irritatingly-perky missives that fill up my inbox with random products or advice on healthy choices I thought I wanted to make. In the wake of the virus, I’ve decided I’m healthy enough for someone who has long planned on dying at seventy-five. Which is the perfect age to do so, and I could tell you why but I won’t digress.

On Thursday, I arrive orange bandana-bound and insert my disinfected credit card for the co-pay. I Purell my hands and look right. A young man, without a mask, seated on the banquette adjoining the receptionist counter, his body twisted toward it, is chattering non-stop. His pants ride way-too-low, his fleshy cheeks pressing against the rust vinyl cushion in cringe worthy fashion. This can’t be the hygienic standard to which they aspire.

The machine buzzes. I extract my card and whisper, “He needs to pull up his pants.”

The mask clad receptionist doesn’t make eye contact as she processes my receipt. “His therapist is speaking with him about that.”

Her response is vexingly passive but the office has lost two-thirds of their patients over the past three weeks to the paranoia of COVID-19. Patients possibly smarter than I. I tap another dab of hand sanitizer into my palm and rub, wondering how often they disinfect the seating area and how crotchety I sound, an old woman who doesn’t understand the sartorial choices of the youth of today. Well, she’d be crotchety too if a pandemic had her age group in its sights. I take a chair on the far side of the room and consider the likelihood of the virus spreading through flatulence.

Kat comes through to collect me. I nod toward the talker whose pants remain low. Kat appears not to notice. It occurs to me the receptionist was referring to the talker’s psychologist, not his physical therapist. I wish for a couch of my own to sort out what exactly I should be prioritizing in the possibly-less-than eight good years I’ve got left that will be awash with one superbug after another. A mask wardrobe climbs to the top of my list. We head to the main room.

Kat indicates a freshly wiped treatment table on the east wall of windows and I dump my vest and phone on the chair beside it. Bikes and treadmills line the south window bank. Kat sets the timer on the hand bike. Cranes dot the Seattle skyline in front of me exemplifying the war between density and social distancing. Why does the younger population occupying all these new apartment buildings think they don’t have to wear a mask? All those supposed influencers seem not to have any influence at all based on the untethered droves of out-of-school teenagers roving the city at will. Adolescent clumps that pass infuriatingly close to you on any given street.

A minute into the six I’m required to do, a case-in-point, a young athlete emblazoned with his high school logo, begins doing planks in front of the adjacent mirrored wall eight feet to my right. He has no mask either. He’s sweating. The type of sweat that could include the droplets that the CDC says—in the 3-D enactment I just saw on my iPhone—can possibly travel more than six feet. I raise my hand off the bike handle to test for a breeze.

I catch Kat looking at me. I reclaim the hand pedal and stare out the window at the storm clouds rolling in from the south Sound, imagining droplets drifting toward me. I’ll have to burn my t-shirt and leggings. I dismount and wash my hands at the sink in the center island. I fill a cup with water. I’ve touched the lever. I wash my hands again.

Kat motions me to the table. She works on my left shoulder—the break was very close to my socket—I close my eyes and try to swallow the tickle in my throat. Why is it you always need to cough when you are close to people these days and never when you’re not? I stifle it and my eyes water in response. I resist the urge to wipe my eyes because I can’t remember if I scrubbed the tips of my fingers.

Kat manipulates my arm over my head. I breathe into the pain. The talker rings out behind me. Is that his breath or Kat’s I feel parting my hairline? Why didn’t I bury my phone under my vest? I open my eyes. The talker has moved out of spittle range.

Kat smiles, her dimples partially showing above her mask. I sit up and raise my arm for a six-week progress measurement. Kat tells me I’m improving rapidly. I nod, pleased I’ll be in good shape for my impending death. The talker, whose pants are a bit higher now, but not high enough, comes back into my sightline. Doesn’t he understand the whole mask thing only works if we all wear one? I approximate the space between us and contemplate giving him a belt. Would he wear it? If the clinic can require face coverings why not belts?

Kat’s intern cajoles the chatterbox into action when he pauses, ignoring the non-stop patter. Does the intern realize that a life-altering LDC-Titanic-loogie could be headed his way? I speculate on the intern’s age. His ability to assess risk is probably still developing.

Kat hands me a pair of two-pound weights and assigns me a set of arm exercises. Rob, the aging hippie who typically has the appointment after me, arrives. He doesn’t have a mask either. I turn my head, fuming, as Rob with his shoulder length grey ponytail and bad knee bob past. He mounts the recumbent bike. I finish my arm lifts in a huff and scan the room. Can I make it to the sink without threat? I chance it, refilling my water cup as Kat grabs a pillowcase.

I join her at the passageway between reception and the therapy room. I focus on the linoleum adhered to the wall. Do they wipe it down after every use? The pillowcase, the only barrier between me and possible COVID-19 remnants, keeps my arms at a tensioned distance that makes my shoulders burn by the second set of ten. I sigh into the eight inches of space between me and the wall.

Kat returns, creating a much-appreciated human shield between the talker and me. He’s chattering to no one and everyone while doing a step exercise about four feet away with a thick band of silicone around his ankles. His pants are slipping again or is the band pulling them down? Someone should have thought that through.

Kat circumvents his path, leading me to the mirror on the southwest side of the room. Behind me, the athlete moves to a table next to the one I used. Shouldn’t there be a tables-for-those-without-masks section? His leg bumps the chair holding my vest and phone. Kat hands me a rubber blade to shake. She sets a timer.

In the mirror, I can see the talker’s pants slip another notch. The athlete is breathing toward my chair. I try to concentrate on jiggling the blade. My shoulder aches. Thirty seconds goes on a long time. Slipping-pants two-steps out of my sightline. The athlete turns his head the other way. The timer beeps. I exhale.

Kat guides me to the pulleys. I sit with my back to the east wall. Her intern gives slipping-pants his last exercise in the northwest corner of the room. I close my eyes and pull. My bandana and arms move with my breath. I count and breathe. Right arm up, left arm down. Reverse. I hit twenty and open my eyes. Kat smiles and says I’m all done.

Slipping-pants has been dismissed too but he stands in the passageway, making it impossible to maintain a social distance if anyone else wants to exit. My vest and phone remain hostage on the chair next to the athlete, now icing in the recline, breathing straight up to the ceiling. Is this the senior version of No Way Out? I raise an eyebrow at Kat.

“You can exit this way,” she says, pointing to an alternative route through the back hallway of treatment rooms.

I suck in my breath, grab my things, then dash to the sink to exhale and wash my hands. Hair slips down on my right shoulder. My hair clip isn’t the only one losing its grip. The mirrored wall is three short feet from Rob on the bike.

I release the rest of my hair and hold up the clip. “Is there a mirror anywhere else?”

Kat nods. “Just inside the first treatment room.”

I turn my head and scurry past Rob’s ponytail into the room. I twist up my hair and zip my vest. I adjust my bandana. What good are guidelines if everyone doesn’t follow them? I Purell my phone and hands and stuff a tissue into my pocket for the walk back down the hill. I glance at the exit. Pants is levering the door open with an ungloved hand. I grab another tissue and wait. I see Kat watching me.

I issue a muffled goodbye. I temporarily reject the notion that a tissue is absorbent and place it between my palm and the door handle. I creep down the hall. An elevator pings. I wait until the doors thump closed before stepping around the corner. I toss the tissue in the trash can and elbow the button.

The elevator deposits me in the lobby. I head to the Boren Avenue exit. Slipping-pants is pushing through the glass door. He goes left. I propel the door with my back. Does everyone over sixty in Puget Sound feel like they have a target on theirs?

I go right and lap O’Dea High School before circling back to my route home. Pants is a block ahead of me. I slow my pace. The cherry-blossom-lined hillside envelops him and he slips from my horizon.

A cluster of unmasked teens lumbers toward me. I cross to the other side of the street, mulling over the merits of a fully functioning arm while attached to a ventilator.

Is it something I will need?



Kay Smith-Blum is a writer, recovering fashion retailer, and Austin, Texas transplant living in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of two novels of historical fiction now out for agent consideration. This is her first publication.

Image: univision.com

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  1. Growing old is not for sissies, but this article shows that you can age in a feisty, humorous and real way! I have a new heroine in the coronavirus age!

  2. Awesome story! Made me re-think some of my actions while simultaneously making me smile.

  3. I could feel the anguish she was experiencing when others don’t respect others. I also could feel the humor too in the situation she found herself in! Could also picture Mr. Slippy Pants! Great read!

  4. The writer so cleverly depicts the reality of what it is like being the “at risk group “in the time of Covid.
    Well done Kay Smith Blum.
    Humor is so desperately needed now!

  5. I’ve known the author for over 40 years, but have been distant for a long time now. I wasn’t surprised at all by her wit & self expression. I am surprised by her age & for that matter, mine as well! Her keen eye & observational skills are now serving her humorously & well, affirming her ability to do anything she sets her mind to. Next step, a full blown author! Great essay & way to go!

  6. Lovely! This article is filled with humor and tongue-in-cheek brashness that wakes you up. I enjoyed the scenes with Kat and the dialogue very much!

  7. So relatable!! And some of those lines are real zingers – made me laugh out loud a couple times 🙂

  8. Funny and all too relatable commentary about people and protocol during this very odd time. Thank you for the humorous peek. Look forward to your next observations. Well done!

  9. Years from now, people will look back at 2020 and scratch their heads trying to imagine what the COVID-19 atmosphere must have been like. You’ve summed it up perfectly for them with humor and grace. I laughed out loud at some of your spot-on observations!

  10. Fun essay about the unfunny situation(s) we find ourselves in as we venture beyond the walls of our homes. Anyone over 50 or in a high-risk group is likely doing a lot of calculating these days of distance, droplets, wind and risks.

  11. Funmy story about the unfunny situations(s) we find ourselves in these days. Anyone over 50 or in a high risk group who has left the safety of their home has likely spent hours calculating distance, droplets, wind and risk.

  12. Favorite line: “In the wake of the virus, I’ve decided I’m healthy enough for someone who has longed planned on dying at seventy-five.” I changed my mind when I read this: “Well, she’s be crotchety too if a pandemic had her age group in her sights.” Fun read in these not-so-fun times.

  13. Cringing humorously while intensely navigating the myriad of obstacles both human and inanimate. It was emotionally touching while considering one’s vulnerability.
    Having a shoulder replacement done in February and attending on going therapy twice a week, it is like reliving each session. I may not be able to hold my tongue when I see those same characters next week. A delightful read.

  14. A funny and vivid story — I can clearly picture this happening and I especially love the feisty commentary from the author!!

  15. That was a fun read Kay Smith-Blum. Let’s hear more from this writer.
    Current topic in interesting times.

  16. I was hooked from the 3rd paragraph. Sharp and hilarious. I felt I was right there, anxiously holding my breath…..

  17. An enjoyable read with a detectable balance of apprehension and comic inserts that echo the current topic of the day.

  18. Wow Kay, I could relate to this! Love your humor in this time of apprehension. Looking forward to reading more of your works.

  19. Loved the essay. Her “best used by date of death year” was a little daunting to me since I am closer to it and don’t feel I have given “my all”, but I am sure she has her reasons. The transitions of movers and shakers, trend makers, creative types, original thinkers aren’t all in the older class, but a great deal are and more works like this make us visible to the ones who think we are expendable. Bravo, Kay!

  20. It’s refreshing to hear some authentic grumpiness when so many of us are feeling it. Especially those of us who are suddenly at high risk, even though we never were before. That gives one plenty to be grumpy about. And then there are the pants…

  21. So well written..Kay Smith Blum!
    It so humorously revealed the vulnerabilities that all of us in the Fab 60’s have been experiencing..The depiction of Slipping Pants was so cleverly displayed.

    Loved that Kay threw in such a humorous touch to the anxiety that has permeated our lives!

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