‘Iterations in the back of a minivan during a pandemic’ by Val Muller

Welcome to The Spot Writers. The prompt for this month is “someone finds a bag.” Today’s post comes to you from Val Muller, author of the kidlit mystery series (find out more at www.corgicapers.com). The timing of this is serendipitous, as a year ago today was the last “normal” day before schools closed for nearly a year. 

Iterations in the back of a minivan during a pandemic

By Val Muller

School’s closed.

Online learning?

Maybe. But not today.

The district’s figuring it out.

Me? I’d better drop the kids—

While daycare is still open for business—

And then head west,

Over the mountain,

To the county that hasn’t closed yet,

Where panic is still on its way.

Hit up the Walmart there.

Make sure not to forget anything.

Take the van. That way I can fit everything.

What is “everything?”

I think of feeding family,

Of fruit cups and juice boxes,

Of boxed pastas and shelf-stables.

I think of an apocalypse.

I do not think of toilet paper.

Another customer fills a cart

With 12 gallons of milk

And the rest, Pepsi.

What kind of apocalypse are they expecting?

I do not think

Of sidewalk chalk

Or hand sanitizer,

Of coloring books or boredom busters.

My mind fills with

The Walking Dead,

But without the zombies.

Food, food is what we need.

I’d best head home, unload the van,

And organize the freezer.

In the fearful months,

When no one yet understands,

The van’s automatic door

Becomes the gateway to the world:

Order online, curbside pickup.

“Pop your trunk,” the instructor always says,

From a phone or from ten feet away,

Masked.

With gloved hands, they push the automatic button

To close the door

On our precious supplies,

While my then-four-year-old

Soaks it all in.

School is online now,

But optional.

What student would attend optional school,

During a pandemic,

When the work doesn’t count?

And so I spend days with tots—

Now out of daycare, closed—

And nights planning lessons

And grading papers

For the handful of students

Who pretend things are normal.

Sometimes, when we feel extra risky,

And can’t stand another moment at home,

We buy takeout

And drive somewhere,

Have a picnic

In the back of the minivan.  

The weather temperate,

We venture out,

One parent going into the store.

Who is most expendable?

Who must we watch carefully for the next two weeks

To see if they succumb?

Two weeks of nerves

That will only repeat about 15 days later,

When we must venture out again.

Sometimes we all come along for the ride

On those days when we cannot spend another hour

At home,

When we just need a reminder that the rest of the world

Still exists.

And we pass a restaurant,

Give a little nod,

And order curbside,

Drive to the end of the parking lot,

Pop the back door open,

Our family picnic.

Through that open hatch we watch

Sunsets,

Firetrucks,

Ants,

Seasons,

Our growing children.

We find all the hidden cupholders

The makers of the Odyssey

Must have one day imagined

Could hold all the cups

Of a family

Picnicking during a pandemic.

We find the one cache

The former owners had not cleared out,

Containing a yellow hair tie

And a marble.

The nooks of the van

Become caves and mountains

For puppy figures

And racetracks for cards.

And then we clean it up again

And return home.

The world steps toward Open.

Schools would count this time, this August.

No, make that September—

We need more time.

I will teach from home, but how—

With Little Ones?

Broken heart watches child mask up,

Mask hiding smile,

Skipping back to preschool

Knowing only the happiness of friends

And not the Dangers that worry parents.

Driving home without them,

The first time alone in months:

Zen.

But lonely.

So back to the minivan,

Picnic blanket spread,

This time for the dogs.

Want to go for a ride?

Skeptical at first after all the time home,

They soon expect it, their Daily Ride.

Vaccines and promises:

The world steps toward Open.

Students return,

But is it Safe—really safe—

In the building,

A building older than grandparents,

Designed more for air raids

Than pandemics?

Is the tiny air filter in the corner

Our generation’s Duck and Cover?

At lunch, teachers pass in the hall,

A quick gesture or masked smile

Hiding sadness of memories:

A packed workroom, laughter, stories, jokes,

Sharing of food, the old days.

Then we head to our cars to eat,

Alone,

Or to a closed room,

Remembering that isolation

Is the worst of the side effects.

I take the pillow out of my milkcrate,

Place laptop on milkcrate desk,

Sit.

This is my life now.

Worried and lonely,

A terrible lottery:

Never knowing when my number will be called

To cover for a sick teacher

Or to bring germs home to my family.

As I stop to stretch in a space that seems so large

With just me and a laptop,

I find a bag from that burger place,

The one we went to months ago

For a picnic.

We had gotten the kids each a toy:

Plastic bow and arrows and a monster truck.

He raced the truck around the contours of the van

While she shot arrows into the peaceful bushes.

I ache for my family,

But why, when for so many months

I wished for solitude?

Inside the bag: a pink puppy superhero

And her pink motorcycle.

It has been missing for months.

The kids will be relieved she is safe—

But maybe I shouldn’t tell them.

I place her in one of the cupholders,

Her motorcycle in another.

Maybe soon there will be another picnic,

Another chance to savor the small things,

To take in all the details,

Instead of rushing through endless Daily Grind.

And on that day, they will find their lost pup

And the magic of childhood once more,

In the back of the van.

The Spot Writers—Our Members:

Val Muller: http://www.valmuller.com/blog/

Catherine A. MacKenzie: https://writingwicket.wordpress.com/wicker-chitter/

Phil Yeats: https://alankemisterauthor.wordpress.com

Chiara De Giorgi: https://chiaradegiorgi.blogspot.com/

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