John Steele waited all his life for this opportunity. He purchased the latest toilet papermaking machines. Now that Covid-19 reached the shores of America, people bought and hoarded toilet paper like there was no tomorrow. He did a double fist pump before inspecting his new machines.
John looked at all the facts and figures and now was his moment. He took out a loan at the bank and bought all the jumbo paper rolls and trucks that it would buy. He signaled to the foreman Henderson to load the paper. A giant of a man 6-foot-five, the red-bearded Henderson worked for Steele Toilet Paper for 20 years.
“Two-ply or one-ply,” Henderson asked.
“One-ply,” John said. He smiled. “Let it roll. No pun intended.”
Henderson grinned back. “No pun received. Let it roll,” Henderson barked.
And the machines started.
“Most people prefer two-ply,” Henderson said.
“There will be a shortage,” John said. “People won’t care whether it is two- or one- ply. Make it and they will buy it.”
John and his production manager Hank and his sales manager Pete watched the plasma television set in John’s office. Hank had worked for John for twenty-five years and Pete for ten years.
“Tragedy,” Hank said. “Hundreds of thousands are going to die. Perhaps millions. Fifty to one hundred million died in the 1918 Spanish Flu Epidemic.”
“They are dropping like flies in Wuhan,” Pete said.
“It has spread to Japan and South Korea,” Hank said. “Italy too.”
John scratched his chin. “We need to buy all the toilet paper we can, cardboard and perfume too before they jack the prices up.”
“Supply and demand,” Pete said.
“Do we have enough people?” John said.
“We’ll need more packers and truck drivers,” Hank said.
“Then get them,” John said.
John showered, dressed, and came downstairs in his new suit. The smell of coffee and bacon and eggs filled the air. It was 5:30 a.m. Still dark. The children slept. Miriam cooked in the kitchen. “Junior is going to be in the high school play in January,” she said.
She was once small and pretty. Now she looked plump and middle-aged. She was only a year older than John but she looked ten-years-older.
“Good,” John said. He still looked like he was in his thirties.
“I hope you will have time to see him this time around,” his wife said.
“What play is it?”
“All My Sons,” she said. “It is about war-time profiteering. Arthur Miller is one of your favorites.”
“Another time; another life,” he said.
“You once wanted to be a writer,” she said.
“Childish dreams,” he said. “I will try. Things are about to get busy at the plant.”
“Don’t forget about your family,” she said.
“I have to think about many families,” he said. “Stockholders too. Steele Toilet Paper is like a ship. The ship feeds everybody on board. I am its captain. Everybody looks to me.”
“We make time for what we believe is important.”
“Well, what pays for our house? Our child’s education? Our vacation home by the lake?”
“Are you coming home tonight?”
John needed Marta to keep him sane. She was young, innocent and beautiful. She worked as his personal assistant at his penthouse in the city. But she was his daughter, confidant and lover all-in-one.
Marta was 25-years-old. She started as John’s secretary five years ago. She loved John unconditionally. Marta moved the sides from the oven to the kitchen table. Different colored Irises stood in a glass vase in the middle of the table. “Everything is ready except for the steaks,” Marta said. “Have a seat. Everything will be ready for you in ten minutes.”
“What kind of flowers are those?” John asked.
“Irises,” Marta said. “Iris means rainbow in Greek.”
“I never had use for flowers,” John said. “They are merely ornamental.”
“Flowers are beautiful,” Marta said. “Isn’t that enough?’
John sat at his desk and checked the reports in his briefcase. He turned on the television. The newscaster was reporting about two customers in Australia fist-fighting over toilet paper. He laughed. “Ridiculous,” he said. The news also reported COVID-19 on an American cruise ship and the first cases in Seattle.
“Hey, John,” Marta said. “Dinner is served.”
After dinner, they showered and went to bed. After turning off the light, John unbuttoned Marta’s pajama top.
“Not tonight honey,” Marta said.
“Headache?” John joked.
“Just a little tired.”
John caressed her face and kissed her cheek.
By the time, John arrived at the factory, Henderson and his men already loaded jumbo spools of toilet paper ready to be rerolled into smaller rolls for the supermarket. It was still dark but he could see the light from the old warehouse from the top of the hill. The men were working double shifts. Henderson gave John the thumbs up.
Emily brought a cup of coffee and an egg sandwich from the local fast food joint. Hank and Pete came in. Emily brought their coffee and sandwiches in.
“Have you been watching the news?” Pete asked.
“People always buy toilet paper in a crisis – earthquakes, hurricanes,” John said.
“Now, pandemics,” Hank said.
“People are going crazy,” John said.
“Sales are through the roof,” Pete said.
“Can we add another shift?” John asked.
“We can,” Hank said, “but I worry about the equipment.”
“Are we getting the paper to the stores?”
“Yeah, boss,” Pete said. “But the toilet paper is flying off the shelves faster than we can stock them.”
“I wonder what happened during the plague,” Hank said.
“That was before they invented toilet paper,” John said. “Do you know what the English nobles used to use?”
“What?” Hank asked.
“Old pages from a book,” John said.
“Never had much use for books,” Hank said.
“We could easily double the price,” Pete said.
“The news media would have our heads on a platter if they found out,” John said.
“Increased overhead, production, and material costs,” Hanks said.
“Sell the one-play at the cost of two-ply,” John said.
John buzzed Mildred on the speaker. “Yes?”
“Get my lawyer on the phone.” John said. “I need to amend my will.”
At the end of the play, the audience gave a standing ovation. John and Miriam sat next to each other in the front row. Mrs. Stein, the drama teacher, congratulated the proud parents. “Junior said you once had dreams of being a writer,” she said.
“Childhood dreams,” he said.
“Well, maybe you have a play in you yet.”
Afterward, John, Miriam, and Junior went to R.J. Steakhouse together.
“Son, I am so proud of you.” John proclaimed.
“You were great honey,” Miriam said.
John was worried. Marta had the chills and fever but John was fine. “Call Dr. Roberts,” he told her. “I brought you a mask from home from when Junior had the flu.”
“I’ll just sweat it out,” Marta said.
John called Dr. Robert’s office but they were booked up.
“I need to talk to Dr. Roberts,” he told the receptionist.
“He is with a patient.
“Tell him it’s John Steele.”
“Hello, John,” Dr. Roberts said.
“Marta is very sick,” John said. “I know it is probably just the flu. But I am worried that it could be this COVID-19 thing.”
“Does she have a mask?” he asked.
“Yes. I just gave her one.”
“I can see her tomorrow at 10 a.m.”
John went to a Republican fundraiser.
“This will be a tough one,” Tony Watson said.
“People will vote with their pocketbook,” John said.
“Trump is tanking in the polls,” Tony said.
“He’s got his hardcore,” John said.
“I’m not impressed with Biden.”
“We ought to hedge our bets.”
“What do you mean?”
“Can you get us into a Biden fundraiser?”
When John came to the plant, Hank was supervising the plant. Giant steel machines, re-spooled the toilet paper on smaller rolls, spraying perfume and embossing the sheets. Forklifts moved giant wrapped mountains on toilet paper on pallets to large trucks awaiting transport to warehouses.
“Where’s Henderson?” John asked.
“Called in sick,” Hank said.
“In all the years, Henderson worked for me, he never missed a day.”
“He has a terrible fever.”
It was funny after all these years, he never asked Henderson if he was married and whether he had a family.
When he opened his office, Emily left his messages on his chair. “Mr. Steele, your lawyer called. He is not meeting with clients until this COVID-19 thing passes.”
John turned on the television. COVID-19 was killing people in Italy. Seniors were dying in nursing homes in Seattle. The first cases were reported in New Rochelle, New York.
John walked down the long hallway like he had done nearly every weekend for the last two years, passing the nursing station and the dozen residents in the long corridor lined with mostly old men and women sitting in their wheelchairs in various stages of decay, all nearly their life’s end. A young dark-haired man sat in his wheelchair staring vacantly into space and two old residents sat in their wheelchairs talked excitedly with one another gesticulating with their hands to illustrate a point. The ever-present and strong smell of disinfectant and the faint smell of urine and feces hung in the air like the faint smell of a woman on a summer’s evening. But no one seemed to notice.
Although a woman was repeatedly screaming in her room “They are coming to get me!” no one appeared to be alarmed. A nurse from Nigeria dressed in light green scrubs garbed her clipboard and casually walked toward the room of the screaming woman.
John knocked on the room that his mother shared with another Alzheimer’s patient. Although he had a heavy heart, John put on his happy mask. His mother’s wooden walking stick lay on the metal radiator air conditioner.
Jesus on the cross hung on a leather necklace from the corner of the grease board above his mother’s bed. A ten-year-old photo of John, Miriam, and Junior stared from the picture frame on the nightstand next to her bed. How much younger they all were then? When he entered the room, his mother was sleeping, her disheveled white hair combed to the side.
He combed his mother’s hair back and kissed her head. Her eyes fluttered open and she smiled as she always did, the same warm loving smile he had always known.
“Son, how are you? I have missed you.”
Marta called John. In a rasping voice, she said: “I have COVID-19. You better not come here.”
“You are kidding,” John said.
“No,” she said. She coughed. “Dr. Roberts called this morning.”
“How are you feeling?”
“I’m burning up,” she said. “I was having hallucinations last night.
“I’m coming over.”
“You can’t,” she said. “Dr. Roberts needs you to come in and get tested.”
Dr. Roberts was John’s personal physician and had been his family doctor for ten years. In all those years, he never had seen him wear a mask and face shield before. “As you can see, I am as fit as a fiddle,” John told Dr. Roberts.
“You certainly look well,” Dr. Roberts said.
“Then I can’t possibly be infected,” John said.
“This is a very strange disease,” Dr. Roberts said sticking a long swab deep up John’s nose into his sinuses. “You can be infected and yet show no signs. You can pass the disease to all those you come into contact during that period.”
“You may or may not get sick later on. This is an extremely contagious disease that is passed by tiny water droplets from your mouth.”
“I am sure I am fine,” John said.
“It does not hurt to be careful,” Dr. Roberts said. “The testing labs are backed up. In the meantime, you need to self-quarantine.”
“What does that mean?” John asked. “You mean I can’t go to work?”
“You can infect other people if you are sick.”
“But I’m not sick,” John said.
“We don’t know that yet,” Dr. Roberts said. “People die from this disease.”
“All right, Doc. You win.”
“You are also going to have to stay away from your family.”
“I can set up in the basement.”
“Good. Please keep me up to date on your progress.”
“Come back in four weeks and we will retest you. But if your condition worsens you must let me know right away.”
Miriam set up an office in the basement for John. She made his meals and left them at the door. At first, John was fine. Then he lost his taste and smell. Then the fevers came and the hallucinations.
The news reported that COVID-19 was rampant in New York with hospitals being overstretched and thousands dying. Ten thousand people died in this country and the numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths exponentially growing.
The nursing home called. The ambulance was taking his mother to the emergency room. She had COVID-19. John was worried.
John spoke to Hank over the telephone. “People are in panic mode here,” Hank said.
“Can we get people masks?”
“We can’t buy them anywhere, even the cheap ones,” Hank said
“Our truck drivers are calling in sick,” Pete said.
“Henderson died,” Hank said. “Wife found him dead in their bed.”
“Henderson was married?”
“Two kids in high school,” Hank said.
John called Marta. “How are you, honey?”
“Turned the corner,” she said. She coughed.
“You sound terrible,” John said.
“That which does not kill us makes us stronger,” she said.
“At least you sound better than before.”
“How are you?”
“Things are getting rough.”
“Hang in there.”
Miriam rapped on the basement door. “John?”
“Love you too honey.”
Miriam left the tablet by the door. “The hospital is on the line,” she said.
“Mr. Steele?” Dr. Biagi asked.
“Your mother is on a ventilator.”
“What does that mean?”
Dr. Biagi took a deep breath. “She’s not going to make it.”
“I’m sorry. It is time to say good-bye.”
By the time the ambulance came, John was delirious. Miriam could never make up her mind. She could not decide whether it was safer to keep John at home or to take him to the hospital which was overrun with sick patients.
John’s fever was 103. He was vomiting and had diarrhea. He could barely breathe.
The first responders looked more like police from the bomb squad with all their personal protection equipment than paramedics.
“Take it easy, Mr. Steele,” they said. “We got you.”
Miriam and Junior watched from the front porch as the ambulance drove away. The emergency room was filled with patients, doctors, nurses, and medical technicians.
“Mr. Steele, I am Dr. Jamison,” the young woman said. “You are very sick. We will get you up to a room as soon as possible.”
John slept on his stomach to prevent the virus and mucous from infecting his lungs. He seemed to get better but on Day 9, he crashed. The doctors put him on a ventilator. He fought for his life. The news said only 20 percent of patients put on ventilators survived.
The nurse handed John his cell phone.
“This is Miriam,” his wife said over the telephone. “We are with you. You are going to make it.”
“Dad, this is Junior. We are very proud of you.”
“That which does not kill us,” John rasped, “makes . . . us . . . stronger.”
After a week, the doctors took John off the ventilator. He was going to make it. John looked out the window. It had stopped raining. A beautiful rainbow stretched across the horizon.
“I think I never before understood the beauty of a rainbow,” he said.
Mark Kodama is a trial attorney and former newspaper reporter who lives in Washington, D.C. with his wife and two sons. He is currently working on Las Vegas Tales, a work of philosophy, sugar-coated with meter and rhyme and told through stories. More than 150 of his short stories, poems and essays have been published in anthologies, including those published by Black Hare Press, Clarendon Publishing House, Eerie River Publishing, Escaped Ink Press and Devil’s Party Press. His stories and poems have appeared in Writers and Readers Magazine, the Academy of Hearts and Mind Magazine, Café Lit, Commuter Lit, Dastaan World Magazine, Dissident Voice, Jakob’s Horror Box, Indie’s Nest, Inner Circle Writers’ Group Magazine, Literary Yard, Magazine of History and Fiction, Mercurial Stories, Portland Metrozine, Potato Soup Journal, PPP Ezine, Spillwords, Tuck Magazine and World of Myths Magazine. His stories and poems appear in Ancients, Apocalypse, Blaze, Cadence, Unravel, Dragon Bone Soup, Enigma, Fox Hollow Stories, Glamour, Hate, Tall Tales and Short Stories, Gleam, Fireburst, Latin Anthology, Maelstrom, Pride, Tempest and What Sort of Fuckery Is This? “Land of the Pharaohs” won Story of the Month at World of Myths and “The Summer Camp” appears in Potato Soup Journal, Volume 1, Issue 1 (Best of).