The following is a flash fiction piece that I have written for my mother. The only likeness portrayed on purpose is that of my mother, Judy.
Licorice in the Time of COVID-19
Judy and Karen were hunkered between the plastic totes and bath towels in aisle nine of the neighborhood big-box store. An alarm was going off in the distance and something smelled like smoke.
“Judy, you should just go home.”
“Maybe you should just go home, Karen. Did you think about that?”
“Why would I go home? I want this. I need this.” A tiny, sweat mustache rested atop her lip, and droplets of moisture had collected on Karen’s ample forehead.
“Nobody needs this.” The salt and pepper hair bloomed from the sides of Judy’s head. Her bun once poised at the top and center of her head now lopsided and misshapen from the journey to aisle nine.
“Then, go home!”
Karen rolled over and used the shelves to pull her egg-shaped form to standing. She then limped across the aisle having lost one of her shoes in the previous chaos.
Since the pandemic, grocery stores and big-box stores had implemented systems in their parking lots and stores to keep customers six feet part. As Judy pulled into the parking lot, a teenager wearing a mask and neon vest directed her to a parking spot.
She liked this system having never been a person that enjoyed hunting for a good parking spot. After her two knee replacements, she continued to park as far away from the doors to her location. When asked why, she would reply with, “My legs work,” and, “I need to put some miles on these new knees.”
The strap of her purse wrapped around her body leaving the bag in front where she could easily access her shopping kit: a lavender mask made by her sister, disposable gloves from her brother’s butcher shop, tissues, hand sanitizer, and card pouch containing only her driver’s license and bank card.
As she approached the doors, an attendant counted her on a tallying app on her phone. She looked up at Judy wearily and asked, “Are you sure you want to go in there? It’s…it’s not good.”
Judy pulled her left glove on, and rolled her head releasing pops from her neck and shoulders. “I’ve been training for this my whole life, sister.”
Bedlam. That was the only word that could accurately describe what she was seeing. No matter the effort put forth by the staff, the natives had gotten out of control. The store was no longer the clean and organized zen amidst the chaos. It became the thing it raged against. It was the storm. It was the chaos. The pandemic irrationality of the neighborhood had landed. It had landed hard.
“That mask won’t help you, lady. The virus gets in through your skin,” said a talking hazmat suit with a cart full of sports drinks and puzzles as he crossed in front of her.
She darted across the walkway and into the women’s athletic wear section. She weaved through the labyrinth of yoga pants displays and shirt racks overhearing everyone diagnosing each other.
As she moved from sportswear to shoes, chills ran up her neck. She was being watched.
Of course, I’m being watched, she thought, Everybody is watching everybody. Just go get what you came for and get out.
She squeezed through the strollers and found a clearing in electronics. She could see her destination. It would be a straight shot! She would be out of here in two minutes! She started walking toward the grocery section when it happened.
“Computers are marked down to two dollars!”
Silence and stillness shot across the building. Everyone stood like deer in headlights.
“Attention Shoppers: There has been a mis-”
The floor shook. People emerged from aisles that previously looked empty. Carts filled to the brim and over with meat and bottled watered rushed toward her. Clutching her purse strap, she darted left and right dodging scooters and people who had been locked inside for weeks with their kids for the first time (they were the most dangerous).
She was going to make a run for it. She was going to take her new knees and plow through all of those idiots. She had a job to do – acquire the item and get the hell out.
With her mind made up, she hunkered down took a deep breath, and said, “Let’s go.”
She stared straight down the walkway toward the aisle. Her aisle. She marched with the thunderous force of her father knocking back maskless millennials and dog food hoarders. The crowd continued to descend upon her.
A young man with two children strapped to his person was caught up in the parade of greed. The child strapped to his back was using his head as a bongo while the child in front pulling at what was left of his chest hair. A single tear rolled down his cheek as he watched Judy plunge through the crowd like salmon up stream.
Everything slowed down for her as they made eye contact. Saving him was not part of the mission, but it was the right thing to do.
She took a sharp right turn. Her hair snagged on a roll of Velcro pulling her bun to one side under the weight. The corners of the young man’s mouth turned up. His cart was mostly empty. Apple sauce. Fruit snacks. Lunchables.
Judy reached in and shoved all of his items to the front of the cart, lifted the man and the two children attached to him placing then in the cart. “Hold on!”
A sharp left put them right back into the mainline of greed traffic. She charged forward nicking people in the sides to make them jump out of the way. The traffic slowed as they reached the now empty display of mislabeled computers. A hard left sent them down the towels and container aisle. From there, it was jewelry, and immediately following jewelry was the holy land: self check-out.
She reached inside and lifted the tired, young man and his children out of the cart. Reaching inside her purse, she pulled out a coupon for buy one, get one free on Lunchables. She gently placed it in his hand.
“How can I ever repay you?” He sniffled.
“No repayment necessary. Just keep your kids vaccines up to date, okay?”
Wet words poured forth. “I will always vaccinate my children. Thank you. Thank you.”
She smiled and hoped he could see it in the way her mask was moving. She darted back into jewelry, and the chills ran up her spine again.
Quickly she jerked her head and found the culprit.
Karen came from behind a wall of tummy control panties. She was wearing a homemade sweater with tiny, black bows meant to look like tiny licorices and a mask with a portrait of Nickolas Cage on the front. Only the portrait was rendered in licorice. Licorice Cage.
“Have you been following-”
“There’s a meat shortage, and I have a pricing gun!” A blur of green hair and used sticker string dashed between them.
“There ain’t no more meat,” a voice inquired.
“There’s still lunch meat, right? Right,” another voice replied in a panic.
Judy remembered this moment. This stillness before the erruption. She grabbed Karen’s arm and dragged her into the towel and container aisle.
Who the Hell Is Karen?
Having been retired for roughly ten years, Judy had taken to retirement like squirrels take to napping in autumn. That is to say – not at all.
No longer needing to care of her children, she found herself with some spare time in which she took long walks while listening to Elvis and Beach Boy records on her iPhone, she learned how to Facebook, and she read hundreds of James Patterson and Debbie Macomber novels.
It was short-lived this spare time as only a year or so into her retirement, she was beckoned to the home of her son to live. He was worried about her.
She was forever in a house robe and her hair was always tied up in a knot. When asked about this behavior, she had a perfectly reasonable explanation.
“I call it housecoating. I wear my housecoat when I’m chilly instead of getting a blanket, because I get up and do stuff with my housecoat on. And, my hair is getting long. I’m going to wear it in a bun until I can get a hair cut.”
She agreed to move in with him and his family despite his unfounded worry.
After a few months in the cozy apartment that was at once beneath the main kitchen and connected to a patio with garden and pool, Judy started to develop a morning routine.
She would wake at 4a.m., brew coffee, and do dishes. While sipping her coffee, she would read a couple of pages of her latest Patterson or Macomber novel. At a good stopping point, she would do laundry. She would watch Grey’s Anatomy or Chuck while sorting, ironing, and folding.
While doing all of this, she’s thinking about dinner. What to cook for dinner? While no one in the house expected her to cook dinner, she would frequently cook meals for her son, his wife, and their three daughters. She and her son had a silent competition around dinner. Whoever thought of it and planned it first, won.
It wasn’t often but from time to time, she would lose. When she lost, she and her iPad would sit in the main kitchen while her son cooked. Sometimes, she would be joined by one of her granddaughters. It was on one of these occasions that she learned about Facebook groups.
Facebook groups. A retired, introverts dream. She could join book clubs and band fan clubs.
There were cooking groups and activity clubs right at her fingertips. She didn’t even have to take off her housecoat.
It was in one of these Facebooks groups – The Black Licorice is the Only Licorice Society – that she met Karen. Karen. Karen who would often brag about her big licorice scores and never offer to share the details of where she acquired said licorice and would never participate in the monthly licorice swaps. Instead, she opted to show up in the group and brag.
Last Christmas, she posted pictures of a crate of licorice that had been imported from Australia. Beautiful, long ropes of shiny licorice. Enough to make gift bags for her friends (if she had any), and every member of the group. What did she do with all that licorice? She made it into an evening gown. She wore it, made a live video of herself walking all over her house as her cats chased the train. Having dragged the licorice on the floor and having sweated on the rest of it, Karen threw the organic, fair trade licorice in the garbage.
Which Brings Us Up To Speed
Judy needing some assistance to stand steadied herself on a stack of turquoise plastic totes and pushed herself up. She watched the egg-shaped Karen on stick legs trying to make it through the wall of people.
Judy adjusted her purse strap and ran out the back of theaisle with total disregard for the entrance only sticker on the floor.
After pushing and weaving her way through the crowds of employees who were rushing to put out the fire in the gardening, she arrived at the candy aisle.
This is it. This is what she left the house for. She breathed in the moment relishing her soon to be victory when out of the corner of her eye she noticed a pallet of dog food bags was slipping, and who was staring up at it watching it slip instead of running like a normal person?
“Karen! Look out!”
Karen stood frozen with her mouth open and eyes like pancakes. Judy weighed her options looking longingly at the candy aisle and then to Karen.
I could just let the dog food fall. How big are those bags? 60 pounds. That’s not a…Yeah, that’s a lot.
She darted to Karen tackling her onto the bean bag display just behind her. The dog food crashed to the floor bursting the bags and filling the air with a beef stew-like smell.
“What did you do that for?” Karen grumbled.
“Next time, I’ll let the dog food crush you. How about that?”
Karen rolled left to right building up momentum while Judy stood up and looked on.
“Well, are you going to help me up or just stand there.”
Judy helped Karen to her feet, she straightened her mask and limped to the candy aisle.
They walked down the aisle passing empty spaces where gummy bears and hard candies once were. When they reached the licorice section, it was stocked full with licorice of all shapes and sizes. But, it was all red.
Not a single black licorice piece in the bunch.
“We’ve been duped.” Judy said.
“Did Wanda say it was black licorice?”
“Yep. She said it was a case of black licorice bites. The kind with the panda on it.”
“Maybe someone else bought it?”
Exhaustive sighs escaped them as they slowly turned and walked toward the end of the aisle.
“Oh! Oh! My god! I’m sorry! I didn’t see you there.” A thin, red-haired lady said as she stopped her cart right before making contact with Karen’s barefoot. In her hands, a small case of black licorice bites.
“Can you believe I thought this was chocolate?” She said as she put the box on the end cap and walked into the candy aisle.
Before either of them could say anything, Karen grabbed it and scurried toward the checkout.
Judy had lost.
Before she left, she bought some brownie mix and colorful icing to make brownies with little masks on them for her granddaughters.
When she reached her car, six packages, exactly half of a small case, of bite-sized black licorice was sitting on the hood of her car.
HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY, MOM!