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

Bad Survivalist: 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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