Whale Fall – Part 4 – (Summer)

Jacqueline was having to wake up at 5:30 in the morning to run. On the forecasts on her phone, the following fifteen days had nine featuring over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Taking the garage door out into the neighborhood, she stretched, grabbing her foot and pulling it behind her body in a slightly wincing acceptance. After checking Twitter for the first of two times (the second would be in bed, her husband next to her with a laptop), she placed the phone in her leggings’ slip pocket. The sun gave the briefest glimmer as she took off at a brisk pace along the edge of the curb.

During her run, her bluetooth ear buds were nestled tightly, with Pink Floyd singing to her to run like hell. Back then, Jacqueline thought, people knew the risks. People drank because it made them feel good, and people smoked even when they knew. She ran along the sides of cars, peeking in to see empty wrappers, dust clinging to the dashboard. Behind her, headlights bled along the street pavement, casting her shadow first harshly, then disappearing altogether. When it passed, her rhythmic shadow returned, a repeating back and forth from streetlights, some of which were on, some of which were sporadically stopping as a response to their light sensors agreeing that daylight was coming.

Her phone vibrated.

“Goodbye,” Pink Floyd sang, “blue sky.”

She quickly nabbed her phone on a step forward and minimized her music player to check the message.

Now she’s trying to schedule an appointment.

Jacqueline laughed to herself. Awkwardly, she tried to type as she bobbed along the road, slowing her pace to a steadier crawl.

Yet another cost of the virus.

She slipped the phone back into her pocket. Sweat started in the space between her shoulder blades. Jacqueline was always told to get mean when she felt any pain. The only time she truly appreciated in high school was her seasonal sports. By her senior year she had gotten to know the coaches by their first names, and had babysat several of their sons and daughters for better pay than working at the Sonic or HEB grocers, which everybody else did. But in her case she had networked the job, and had better money going into freshman year of college by going off the books. Cash only, no tax.

“The only differences between the best ski jumpers in the olympics,” coach Jones had said, “and the mediocre ones was their ability to lean forward. To lean into the jump.”

Jacqueline increased her pace.

Her fitbit vibrated that she had gone her requisite 10,000 steps before 7:00. By the time she got home, light had pooled into every crevice. Late sprinklers separated light in their spit paths, and in that final stretch, Jacqueline purposefully moved her legs through them to catch the mist. Overheated, she paced back and forth and put her hands above her head to expand her lungs. A neighbor was pulling out of his driveway with a cobalt-colored truck, heading for work, though where she never knew. She caught him taking a glance at her stretched figure before turning his head back to make sure no cars were coming. Jacqueline slipped her hand past her phone, where she found a single key to the side garage door, fitted it into the lock, took a deep breath and closed her eyes. Finally after some determination, she turned the door and opened it. “I don’t need no arms around me,” was the last line before she decoupled her bluetooth headphones from her phone.

The children were somehow already awake. Jacqueline walked briskly, kissing the top of her son Russel and tousling her daughter’s hair. She had just enough time to turn the television news on, though muted. Playing before her eyes immediately, it seemed that protestors in Seattle had once again set fire to public property, this time the King County Juvenile detention center. The scenes on Fox News were harrowing, shocking to find in the supposedly safe country you lived in.

“Where’s your father?” Jacqueline asked, getting out a gallon of milk for cereal and placing it on the counter. “Lacie, honey, no iPad in the kitchen.”

Lacie, who had hidden the iPad in her lap and had emerged it from underneath, was playing a loud Instagram video of a dance that she was trying to imitate from the waste up. Like someone possessed, she slowly grabbed the iPad, and hovered away from the kitchen, her eyes never leaving the screen.

“He’s in the study,” Russel said. “Printing.”

Damnit. She checked her fitbit. Jacqueline had thirty minutes to get the two ready before they left for their yearly summer church camp, which thank the Lord Jesus had not been cancelled. Jacqueline was able to conclude that there had been some solidarity in this community, as just earlier that month she glanced at the email from their head pastor. He had taken the early research as gospel that children were not as capable at having symptoms, or of spreading it. Five days later after Jacqueline was looking for the box of cereal, which seemed to be in a different spot in the pantry each time, the CDC would release a report on transmission of an overnight youth camp. In late Juney, in the state of Georgia, 76% of the camp attendees tested positive, some 260 in all. But right now, Jacqueline was trying to get her kids out the door.

Jacqueline pulled the cloth masks from the dryer and handed them to Russel. “Make sure one of these gets into your sister’s bag.” Russel nodded and left the table. “Where are you going? I’m doing cereal.”

“If I don’t do it now, I’ll forget,” Russel called over his shoulder, skipping two steps each time he climbed the stairs.

God bless him, she thought.

One box of cereal was almost empty, so she filled the remainder in Russel’s bowl, afterward thinking of another option for Lacie. There were empty boxes all in the pantry. Michael had a habit of eating food late at night and then, as if this covered it up, had put the empty boxes back in. There must have been three cardboard pop tart boxes advertising themselves that Jacqueline picked up and felt the disappointment of almost flinging them due to their lightness. She felt her sweat had cooled once she had gotten inside, but she could feel a tense and constant heat that flushed her face and chest. She was still looking for an option as she heard Russel’s footsteps double back upstairs. Lacie’s iPad sounded as though it was blasting directly into her eardrum. She came out to find her daughter back at the kitchen bar, staring dead-eyed down.

“Lacie, what did I say?” Jacqueline said with as much authority as she could muster, coming out of the pantry and pouring milk into Russel’s bowl.

“But I’m hungry!” Lacie said. She had her voice raised above the threshold of the Instagram dance, still giving off a noisy K-pop sound that made Jacqueline want to grab a paper weight and smash the thing.

“Are you packed?” Jacqueline asked.

“Yes!” Lacie said.

“Do you have socks?”

“Yes.”

“Toothbrush.”

“Yes.”

“Towel?”

“Y-yes.”

“Go to the guest bedroom,” Jacqueline said. “Grab the beach towel from the bottom drawer.”

Without a word, Lacie slipped from the high bar stool slowly and pouted towards the guest bedroom. Russel had come back, passing her and sitting down where she sat, taking the iPad and turning it off.

“Thank you,” she said. “Do we have a final headcount?”

“Kristen’s not going,” Russel said, counting with his fingers. “Heather is going. Jordan, Pace, Kit, they’re all going.”

“Rob?”

Russel grabbed his bowl of cereal. “Rob’s parents said no. Too dangerous.”

Putz, she thought to herself. Jacqueline opened the refrigerator to find no eggs that she could scramble for Lacie. There was no yogurt in the pull out drawer, but there was beer. Michael always made sure there was beer. Suddenly she heard Russel cough and sputter. She turned to find a pained face on her son.

“Milk’s gone bad.”

Jacqueline began to count down from 10, and looked at her fitbit. Her pulse had never left the cardio range, over 100 beats per minute.

Lacie had somehow grabbed the towel and had unfolded it, with the tails dragging around her feet. At a trot, Jacqueline had just enough time to see the danger in this before it happened. Lacie stepped on the towel, which slipped effortlessly on the slick wood floor, causing Lacie’s hands to slip underneath as well which meant nothing was there to stop Lacie’s face from crashing forward like a Barbie Doll with too big a bust. The physical sound of the crack made Jacqueline wince as Lacie began to cry loudly the instant her head came back up.

Russel, who was on the same side of the bar as Lacie, got to her first. Jacqueline calmly came around the kitchen, leaned down, and put her fingers near Lacie’s mouth. Most of the teeth were there, at least the ones that were meant to be there. Still, there was a nasty red welt on her forehead. Jacqueline was grateful that her daughter had taken it at the front of her face, rather than on the chin. She might have lost her tongue the way she stuck it out constantly. Jacqueline straightened up.

“We’re going to McDonald’s!” she announced.

Michael had come in with a laptop tucked underneath his arm. “I thought I heard a sound in here.”

Lacie, who seemed to be recovering, started to cry more as her father came in for some lover babying. “Oh Lacie, honey, what happened?” He put the laptop down on the kitchen counter and picked Lacie up to listen to her repeated and panicky breaths.

Jesus H. Christ, Jacqueline thought.

Russel grabbed the laptop from the counter and placed it on the living room couch. Jacqueline mouthed a “thank you” to him before heading into the office to grab her purse and keys.

“Hey, I heard you were going to McDonald’s?” Michael asked.

“Good morning,” Jacqueline said stoically. “Is that all you heard from out here?”

“Yea, could I get a couple egg and cheese biscuits?”


“And of course you’re finding that these looters,” the talk radio sounded when the family entered the car, “Have a higher tendency to break into electronic stores. Into banks. Wonder why that’s the case,” As she turned the radio down, Jacqueline found her pulse apparently still in the deep red. She could not cool off in this heat. She drove the suburban out of the driveway, nearly colliding with a passing SUV.

“Sorry guys,” she said, as both of the children lurched forward and then back, stunned looks on their faces.

Lacie, unperturbed, had asked to take the iPad with her on the trip.

“Absolutely not,” Jacqueline said.

She demurred when Russel explained that her summer reading was on it. As a mother, she was pleasantly surprised to find the number of reading interventionist programs available in the midst of the pandemic. Plenty of teachers hoping to get a little extra cash to weather them through the season offered some tutoring, even in-person. One such reading interventionist, a handsome undergraduate just out of student teaching named Paul had passed her rigorous scrutiny and had recommended some books which Jacqueline was able to get much easier on the kindle app than going through the bizarre treatment that the local library had taken to, which involved wiping down each book or letting it remain in the book depository, thus making turnaround for popular books quite a hassle. So Jacqueline would let Lacie take the iPad, but she had no doubt that not a single word was going into her head in that five hour drive in the van. Instead, it was likely to be what she was doing now, which was infinitely scrolling.

Jacqueline thought back to the rioters in the northwest. Whatever happened to strength? She remembered her history class in high school, and the Whiskey Rebellion. Back then, George Washington sent over 10,000 troops. Washington went himself! Trying to imagine Donald Trump on a horse leading a charge, Jacqueline laughed a little to herself, only to stifle it when she turned into the shopping center containing what she believed to be the best managed McDonald’s in a five mile radius.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Jacqueline said, as she turned into a drive thru line which looked to be some twenty cars long, in a single line despite the double lane access. Jacqueline took out her phone and texted.

Trying to get the kids out of here and there’s no food in the fridge. Went to McDonald’s instead. And she took a picture of the line.

“Who are you sending that too?” Russel said, chuckling.

“Your Aunt Margaret,” Jacqueline lied.

She heard the phone vibrate in the cup holder. She picked it up.

Why couldn’t Michael go?

He was working, was what she wanted to type. But Jacqueline, as angry as she could get, was not apt to making excuses. She liked being needed. She liked being this inevitable force, as constant and present as that line from Herodotus.

“Neither snow nor rain, nor gloom of night.”

Still, by the time she got done with this line, she would have to take the kids straight to the church. She texted Michael.

The line is super long here. You want to meet us at the church to say goodbye?

She heard a vibration in her hand, but she had to keep the phone down as she put a mask on from the center compartment, she pulled one out to hand to Russel, who put one on silently.

“Hi,” she said to the drive thru attendant. They were taking early orders in person it seemed. The attendant was standing masked in the sun, her uniform most likely baking. She was breathing heavily.

“Can I take…your order…miss?”

“Okay,” Jacqueline said. “Lacie, do you want pancakes, or what?”

For a time, Lacie said nothing. Eventually, Jacqueline turned to find that Lacie was still watching a video, having not heard her. Jacqueline ripped the iPad violently from her hands. “Lacie!”

“Mom!” Lacie said, her face darkening to match the red bump on her head.

“What do you want to eat!?” Jacqueline said.

“Pancakes,” Lacie mumbled.

“Could she get the pancake meal?” Jacqueline said, turning back.

“Orange juice or milk?”

“Milk is fine,” Jacqueline said.

“Orange juice,” Lacie said, leaning forward. “I want orange juice!”

“Okay, gimme a sec,” the attendant said, pulling the tablet away to reduce the glare. “Not sure how to change an order on this thing.”

“She’s okay with milk,” Jacqueline said, attempting to placate the issue. Behind her, cars had stacked and were tightening the space between the cars with every minute of not moving.

“Mom! I want orange juice,” Lacie said in what felt like a drill directly into Jacqueline’s inner ear drum.

“I’m sorry honey, but we’re in a hurry.” She checked her phone.

Too much work. Can I call them?

“What else?” the attendant said, returning to the driver side window.

“Can I get two chicken biscuits?” Russel said. Jacqueline realized that Russel would have probably liked to have gone to Chick-fil-A instead, but if this line was the way it was this morning, Jacqueline was terrified to imagine what that hellscape must have been like.

“You want anything to drink with that?”

“Just a bottle of water,” Russel said.

“We have Dasani and we have water from the soda spout.”

“Uhh, Dasani is fine,” Russel said.

“For you ma’am?”

“Could I have your caesar salad?”

“We don’t serve lunch until 11:00 ma’am.”

“Okay,” Jacqueline said, slowly. “I’ll have an EggMcmuffin and an iced coffee. Hey, why don’t you have the second line open? It would go much faster, you know.”

“Not enough staff ma’am.”

It took another seven minutes for the line to pull up to the drive thru window. An older lady, much older than Jacqueline, handed back her debit card before handing her drinks.

“There’s your dasani honey,” Jacqueline said, and when she turned she saw a 16 oz. cup of orange juice. Trying not to consider just how much sugar was in the juice, she handed the cup behind her to Lacie.

“Yay!” Lacie sounded off.

Jacqueline did not have time to eat her EggMcmuffin, telling them to eat in the car as she sped towards the church. McDonald’s smells wafted through the suburban, but she refused to lower her windows to air it out. The temperature was just too hot.

“Uh oh,” Lacie said. Russel turned around, a half-eaten chicken biscuit in his hand.

“Russel, what happened?” Jacqueline said, as calmly as she could.

“God, she spilled syrup all over the back seat,”

“Lacie!”

“You’re driving scary!” Lacie whined. Jacqueline was just glad she opted for the leather interior.


By the time Jacqueline had made it to the church, all the bags were packed in the trailer hitched behind the van, and the youth group and parents were gathered outside, hand in hand in a circle, praying for the drive as usual. This would be Russel’s third year going, and for Lacie it would be her first. As Jacqueline got out of the car, she could tell that Lacie was nervous, walking tepidly next to her big brother as he carried their bags from the back of the black suburban. Jacqueline was back in the sweltering heat, awkwardly late with the kids. Russel quietly laid the bags up in the final open spots in the trailer, before joining behind the circle quietly, holding Lacie’s hand and bowing his head. Lacie looked questioningly at Russel before following suit.

Jacqueline took a picture of them both and posted it to her Facebook, with the caption “Made it just in time.” She looked at the picture, and with Lacie’s head down, you couldn’t make out the mistake from earlier. All you could see were two beautiful children, two wonderful children who showed up better in instant shots than in the reality that was that morning.

Jacqueline hugged her children goodbye.

“Russel,” she said, as she was close for a hug, “you packed the masks, right?”

There was a rare pause from Russel’s response, where Jacqueline’s heart dropped.

“Uh, shoot,” Russel said, and Jacqueline could see him pantomiming. “I was upstairs, and then I got a text from Rob. I put them down, and then I packed something else. The switch? Oh no…”

“Oh no is right,” Jacqueline said. Watching him splutter was depressing. From Lacie she understood. It was war, they were at war, mother and daughter, what felt like constantly. But this? Jacqueline, rather than spare the moment, made it pervasive and totalizing. Why must all men be like this? No focus, the lot of them. “Ask the youth pastor if they have some for the trip.”

It turned out that the situation was under control. “We have plenty” he said, and then came in close to tell Jacqueline that one of the projects at the camp would be to design their own mask.

After, she called their father. Lacie started to cry as she handed the phone to Russel, who curtly nodded and gave requisite “Yes sirs” to his father before handing the phone back to Jacqueline. She waved to the children through the van window, which would not fully open but instead left cracks along the edges, which the children shoved their fingers through like adorable little kidnapped victims, as the youth pastor grinned and waved from his driver’s side window, pulling the van out of the parking lot and calmly leaving the center of town.

Where was this virus? Jacqueline thought, as she spent time catching up with parents. She gazed around at each person and she saw no coughing. She could see no fever sweats or vomiting. Maybe cases were inflated. She had heard that hospitals were counting all deaths as COVID-19 related. She didn’t doubt it: hospitals were predatory.

Jacqueline relished her iced coffee in the calm drive back to the house, enjoying her moment by driving exactly the speed limit through quiet neighborhood streets. As she passed, she started to see more and more “For Sale” signs than before, as well as Donald Trump and Joe Biden presidential campaign signs, despite the fact that the Democratic party had not nominated him. She saw a variety of other names for representatives she did not know. Had to be an election year, she thought to herself.

In the garage, she turned the car off and texted.

When will I get to see you again?

It was gaudy and aggressive, she knew. But she was exhausted, and could do with some romance.

She received a text.

I’ve heard they opened up the park.

She grinned.

Grabbing the leather couch cleaner and the paper towels from the garage shelf, she proceeded to clean the car from the syrup stink that Lacie had left. She had placed the orange juice cup inside the opening flap behind the chair, rather than the cup holder farther down. Had any more bumps from the car occurred, the remainder of the orange juice (a surprising amount given how excited she was about it) would have spilled everywhere. Despite the fact that every trace of the morning was gone, the smell remained. Jacqueline gave up and went inside.

Michael was typing on his laptop on the living room couch. He had changed the channel, where now The Simpson’s was playing lazily on Disney+ in the background, thankfully at low volume. She placed the McDonald’s bag on the bar, and it was only then that she realized-

“Hey, so how about that line?” he said, going for the bag.

“Good!” she said. “Wait, sorry. It was miserable.”

Michael’s brow furrowed. “Uh-huh.”

She tried to catch up to his pace before he opened the bag. “You wanted one Egg McMuffin, right?”

“No,” he said, confusedly looking into the bag, pulling out the wrapper. “I wanted two egg and cheese biscuits.”

“Oh honey,” she said. “I’m so sorry.” She put her hand on his arm. “Do you want me to go back?”

“No, it’s fine,” he said, disappointed. “I’ll just eat this instead.” He turned and grabbed his laptop, taking the wrapper and himself back into the study.

“I may go to the park later!” she called out, staring into some distance neither could reach.

“Mfokay,” Michael called back, mouth full of McMuffin. Then, only the slight tinny sound of the television remained.

For a full two minutes, Jacqueline stood in the center of the living room. Eventually, she took the remote control and turned off the television. She tried to order Chipotle from her phone, only realizing at the very end of the order that they did not open until 11:00 either. She struggled to count down from 10. She brought herself back to that Herodotus line, but then she suddenly found herself thinking of another song from her youth.

So hold me, Mom, in your long arms. So hold me/Mom, in your long arms./In your automatic arms./Your electronic arms./In your arms.

She closed her eyes and, in her low-blood sugared state, began to giggle and shake her head.

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