Fish Publishing’s Lockdown Prize

Pleased to be included as a finalist. A little message in a bottle from Central TX floating all the way up to Dublin!

Recognition

By Abigail King

I ran into a friend at the fencing supply, a signmaker.   We crossed paths, masked, several times before realizing we didn’t just resemble ourselves, it was actually us.  

“It’s the perfect profession for a pandemic,” he said, with what these days passes for exuberance.  “I work alone, outdoors, up high.”

How many months, years will it be before I stop visualizing respiratory particles emanating from every open mouth?  Their trajectories, the pull of gravity upon them. 

The figs on our neighborhood trees are small, hard, green but changing fast.  What will the world be like the moment they ripen?   

About Ray

I suppose this project can’t be complete without a mention of the nudist at the Super 8 Motel. I was picking up an order of a Cobb salad from a sports bar on Anderson Lane. “GrubHub for Ray?” I said when I arrived.

“Ray,” the young man at the cash register snickered. This was early in my Running days, very few people wore masks, and delivery drivers were still entering restaurants to retrieve orders.

“Ray,” the young woman next him, his co-worker, repeated with a sigh.

I raised my eyebrows. “What’s the deal?”

“He’s…. a character,” the woman said.

“He always places the same order,” the guy explained, “and he never specifies no croutons/extra cheese, and he always throws a fit when the order arrives and yells at the delivery person and calls us to complain.”

“Ah!’ I said, “but you’re on to him now. So, no croutons, extra cheese, correct?”

They confirmed this. I knew the drill; I texted the customer: I’ve got your salad, no croutons, extra cheese and I’m heading your way- anything else you need? He texted back: OK thank you sounds good.

“Good luck,” the sports bar kids told me.

“I’m not afraid of anybody,” I told them back.

The sky grew dark as I drove to the motel by the side of the highway. This would be my last Run of the day. I was feeling tired but peaceful; I had made pretty good money and was still in that early phase of Running where I was delighted at having managed to finagle an income of any sort.

I’d passed the Super 8 plenty of times but obviously never had reason to stop there. I parked, checked my phone for his room number, climbed the outdoor steps to the second floor and knocked on his door.

The door cracked open, and a short skinny nervous guy with a very long ponytail, maybe around 40, peeked out suspiciously. “Hi Ray,” I said, handing him the bag from arm’s length. “Here’s your salad. Enjoy!”

“Wait,” he commanded. ” I need to check to make sure the order is correct.”

“It’s as you requested,” I said pleasantly, stepping backwards from the door to social distance as he turned into his room, door ajar. I could hear the crinkle of the bag as he opened it.

“I would have liked more cheese,” he called to me. His head returned to the door crack. He looked me over. “Still, you did better than most.” The door opened more. “How do you feel about nudity?” he asked, standing in the doorway stark naked.

I offered a benign smile. “I see you, fellow human,” I told him, then gave a nod and headed back to my car.

On the way home I phoned the sports bar. “Listen,” I said, “I’m fifty and couldn’t care less about being flashed but you can not let people step into that situation. It could have been really damaging and traumatic, even dangerous, for someone else. When you said he’s a ‘character’ were you aware that he answers the door naked?”

It was the female employee who’d picked up the phone. She swore ignorance and promised to follow up with the company so he couldn’t get orders from them again.

Of course, there’s no shortage of other sports bars in Austin…. or other delivery services.

As I pulled up to my house I was looking forward to telling the story to my boyfriend and kids; it’s crazy out there! Aren’t people wild?

But something was going on, a movie whose soundtrack makes me crazy or some interpersonal drama, I no longer remember. Something that made me slip off to walk the dog alone and ponder without discussion the mysteries of humans, others as well as myself.

Pause Button

Two weeks ago I Ran Favors for the last time. That Saturday evening, over and over, I declined “offers” to pick up and deliver orders of Chick-Fil-A to far-flung addresses around the city. I can’t do it, I decided, even as my “acceptance rate” dropped alarming in the Favor App. I’m not doing that anymore. Finally an offer popped up that I could accept: I brought a small, reasonable load of groceries to an elderly man who sat at a table on his screened porch, as I arrived, writing longhand on a legal pad. I placed the bags on his door step. “Here you go,” I called out to him. He glanced up briefly, met my eyes, gave a brief wave. What am I doing with my life, I thought, driving away from his house. I pulled into a parking lot and watched the sunset.

My dignity was beginning to suffer. I will stop this madness, I decided, to make room for something new. I want to be writing in my own notebook on my own porch, not spending as much in gas as I’m earning driving my car around mindlessly, endlessly, waiting in lines, opening and closing the door, turning on and off the engine. On and off and on and off and on and off again. What am I going to do with my one wild and precious life? Not this.

At least I will pause this, take time to write about the experience, and see what happens.

Runner Diary, May 15

It’s going to rain tomorrow, so today I toggled my vehicle from car to bike and set out southward. Even with no Favor offers, it would be good to get out on my bike.

I received one, just as I was giving up and thinking about just biking around the lake then home. A woman named Natasha wanted a certain type of bubble tea from a place on Guadalupe Street across from UT campus, The Drag, they call it.

Cost of product: $6.20, Tip: $7.10.

Later, in my car running GrubHub orders, I drove past the UT baseball stadium, bringing Thai food to a gentrified house. It was perhaps exactly two years ago that I’d been in that stadium, my only time there, taking my younger son to a baseball game. It might have been my birthday. It was late May and a very busy time for the baseball team, the end of their season. My son badly wanted to catch a ball and was well-equipped with a mitt, decent seats, and my patient, baseball-appreciating boyfriend offering advice.

Right before or right after that night I got terribly sick, for the first time in eons. It was clearly the flu, though confusing to have in May, plus I’d gotten a flu shot the winter before. In other words, I defied the odds. I lay in bed for a week, begging for limewater and chunks of pineapple. We had just moved into the house together; boxes filled rooms. Chris patiently moved them unpacked what he could, hung paintings, minded my children and brought me pineapple and specialty liquids.

Driving back through downtown today after that delivery I noticed, again, the tent compounds, some lining busy meridians, completely exposed to the elements, others with a modicum of protection due to their locations beneath overpasses. In a few hours, I knew, a storm was coming, and these tents and tent compounds looked ill-equipped to handle strong winds and torrential rain.

I wanted to warn them, tie your stuff down, move to higher ground if you can, find shelter if you’re able to. As if they didn’t know (maybe they didn’t, probably they did), but the roll of dice that would land my vehicle in the correct lane at at red light or with no cars behind me never happened. And the GrubHub app was tracking my location, noting my progress. Clients weren’t paying for detours.

I was cruising East on Cesar Chavez to pick up food from an Indian restaurant I’d never been to– maybe it’ll be a find, I thought. There was a skinny old man at the corner with a walking stick and a cardboard sign, and I was finally in the left lane, two cars back from the corner, and the light was red.

Do you like oranges, I called through my mask as I waved him over. I had three clementines in my left hand sticking out my driver’s side window.

He came over. “They’re my wife’s favorite,” said.

“OK, hang on,” I told him, scrambling to put the clementines back in their mesh sack so I could give him the whole bag.

He took it gracefully as I called out, my best to your wife. The light changed. As I drove on to the next place, I acknowledged that it was he doing me the favor.

Today

Today for the first time I didn’t wash my face; I simply never got around to it. A rainy, cool and gloomy day– I wasn’t planning to run any Favors today, but a personal errand took me to a center of commerce and I thought, why not, I’m out anyway, let’s see what they’ve got.

The first offer was insanely inconvenient. So crazy that I was tempted to accept it because it seemed like a game. Drive a long way to a distant Starbucks, acquire one single beverage, and deliver it to an address even further afield? 30 miles of driving to deliver one drink? Iced sweet tea?? Maybe this would be Easter Egg that hatches the mystical $1000 tip, I wondered? After a moment of consideration, I declined.

Favor disapproves when you decline an offer. They let you know by activating the “Acceptance Rate” feature, which only gets active when you say no thanks; mine went down.

But another Favor popped up immediately, a shopping trip to a nearby HEB. After scanning the list of desired items, I accepted.

It was a small order. Some cheese/milk/eggs, some kitty litter, a few cleaning supplies. From the freezer aisle, downscale ice cream and a bag of tater tots.

The delivery address was tony, but in Austin you can still sometimes find an old dump of a place in an expensive neighborhood surrounded by grand houses. That’s what I expected.

The house, when I got there, was not what I expected. A high-gloss, recent and pricey build. A “for sale” in the front yard.

“You have a cool house,” I told the attractive older man who came to the door after I’d rung the fancy doorbell with my sleeved elbow.

“It’s for sale if you want to buy it!” he responded gamely.

Driving there and home, I scanned my podcast options. Just out today, the latest New Yorker Fiction podcast (issue date of May 18th, how exactly does that work?). A Jonathan Lethem story. I pressed play. I like his work but the speed and volume of his output makes me nervous. He’s prolific in a way that stresses me out.

Looking at the sky, such an incredible sky, I voice- recorded my poem.

I am spontaneously healed.

I am invisible. I can fly.

If I wanted to, I could see through your clothes to your underwear, but I don’t.

I don’t care about anything. I care about everything.

My headlights are on and off at the same time.

My brake lights are flashing.

My windshield wipers move not together

like synchronized swimmers, but

individually, each expressing itself in its own way.

I’m dreaming. It’s a lucid dream, so I can control what happens.

I could decide to wake up, but I’m choosing to stay asleep.

The Runner Diaries: An Early May Evening

Yesterday I ran many Favors. For the necessary income, but to be honest, also to get out of my house and away from the people in it. Friends with husbands and children have confided their envy of my situation; I really don’t have a choice, I have to disappear regularly to go earn the trickle of money that Running provides. At the time of day that they long for escape, a respite from the sounds of their families voices, I am out and about having my own solitary experience.

I drove through wealthy neighborhoods adjacent to the one I used to live in when my kids were little, bringing burritos to one house, pizza to another, fried chicken to a Chinese kid stuck at the boarding school high up on a hill. Memories flashed through me of long-ago playdates: the homogeneity of the parents, the houses, the SUVs parked in their multi-car garages or their circular drives. Those dreaded “parents please stick around to help” birthday parties, the inane chit chat, the omnipresence of sporting events on enormous TVs.

Crisscrossing the river as the sky began to change, I listened to an album of intense piano music by the composer Thomas Adès. The amount of sound being produced by ten fingers seemed impossible.

North of the river again, I drove past a masked woman sitting on a bench at a bus stop on Burnet Rd. She wore enormous sunglasses and a grubby sundress. She was white and skinny with a leathery tan, her sharp legs crossed in a way that reminded me of an insect. Her face turned south, anticipating the bus’ arrival. It was Golden Hour; the setting sun lit her like a theater set or an Edward Hopper painting. In the light she looked lonely yet majestic. There was something terribly sad about her, but also a fierce dignity.

Running With Hormones and Thoughts of Weed, May 7th

Today, Favor/HEB was promoting flower deliveries to nurses, so I opened the app hoping for a bunch of easy runs– my neighborhood is surrounded by hospitals– but I didn’t get a single offer like that; instead, annoying little sandwich orders involving a lot of driving around. I began to take it personally that these people were inconveniencing me by ordering sandwiches from shops ridiculously far from their homes (other days I’ve been irked by the opposite, people who couldn’t be bothered to cross a parking lot to pick up their own take-out). It seemed a personal affront, bad manners, for so many of them to have chosen to live in enormous sprawling apartment complexes with hard-to-reach punch pads for gate codes and poorly marked building numbers.

A podcast episode on holding space for others to express their obnoxious opinions (sorry, opinions different from your own) was interesting while it lasted, but the NPR news that followed was getting me down. Fear of Music, cranked loud, cheered me up. Somehow, one of the songs (I can’t remember which) made me think of the band Hole, who I loved in the 90’s. I tried to re-enjoy their album Pretty on the Inside, a masterpiece of noise/fuzz/rage produced by Kim Gordon, but I couldn’t make it work. Too noisy! Turning to the more accessible Live Through This, I was taken by surprise at my emotional reaction to the songs. I couldn’t listen to any of them all the way through. My eyes teared up. I got my period yesterday and that does make me hypersensitive (hmm, also makes me take things personally…). My emotions were mixed up, confusing. Listening to the lyrics of Violet, I was appalled by the story being told, while at the same time remembering how much I had related to it back when the album first came out. “Go on, take everything, take everything, I want you to…”

I couldn’t listen to Plump past the first few lines, a lyric I’ve always loved: “I don”t do the dishes,” Courtney Love snarls, “I throw them in the crib.”

I felt sad by how distant I’d become from that sort of rage. Other rage has replaced it, a more circumspect version. Probably it is honest to state: a more bitter version. I felt sad for the younger woman I had been and for the fucked up world I, as an older woman, still have to navigate through. I felt sad for my boyfriend’s three teenage daughters, and sad about feeling powerless to help them. I felt sad for Courtney Love, for her treatment by the media. I felt sad that I couldn’t properly remember the Hole concert I’d gone to at Madison Square Garden. I felt sad that I no longer care about going to concerts, then I felt sad that no one can go to concerts anymore whether they want to or not.

Driving home past all the hospitals I wasn’t being paid to deliver flowers to, I remembered that the album had come out as my mother was dying a vicious painful death from cancer. And how Courtney Love had recorded the album, title and all, right before her husband killed himself. That mystical synchronicity had astonished me at the time, yet somehow in the rear view mirror it seems inevitable.

What will tomorrow’s view of today look like? The view back in twenty-five years? I’ll hope I’ll be one of the lucky ones who lives through this to find out.

In the evening, I organized my deliveries to work into an errand I chose to take for myself, driving north to an Indian restaurant for take-out for my family. I listened to the new Kim Gordon release. I don’t have envy for celebrities as a rule, but Kim Gordon is the exception. I envy her voice, her talent, her drollness, her legs. A few days ago I tried to listen to the new Fiona Apple. She wasn’t my bag back in the day but all the cool kids seemed to be into her now, and a lot can happen in a couple of decades, so I gave it a shot. The two albums, Kim Gordon’s and Fiona Apple’s, reminded me of each other. Super fragmented, chopped up, loopy, fractured, broken mirrored, multidimensional, Gertrude Stein-y, overproduced, underproduced, exhausting, boring, what the fuck. Am I the only person who doesn’t smoke a ton of weed right now? I think I might be. There’s only one reason why not: I live with five teenagers, and I don’t want to open that door.

The Runner Diaries: Early May

When Running, I bring a book along in case I need to wait in line to enter a grocery store, or wait for food to be ready if it’s a to-go pick-up. There usually isn’t much reading time in any given Running session but it feels existentially awful to have a time lag and no book, so I prefer to err on caution. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles kept me company for awhile; I read it slowly, on purpose, because I did not want it to end. The echoes with “reality” enthralled me; the sensory deprivation of the bottom of the well, the weird interpersonal interactions, even the missing cat (my own cat had gone missing last fall, then turned up again 5 weeks later, a bit skittish and considerably fatter but otherwise fine) all seemed to mimic my strange and shifting life.

One long wait that stands out to me was at a Whataburger. This was the first time in my life I’d been to a Whataburger (the same could be said of several other fast food establishments during my stint as a Runner/GrubHubber); when my car finally crawled to the microphone, I looked down at the order and was amazed at the gross abundance of food and drink, of fat and grease and calories. I think I must have transported around 40,000 calories worth of “food” to this particular customer. Sometimes I feel I can no longer continue to do this work; this feeling arises most often in the depressing mazes of apartment complex parking lots, or when I’m in my car driving through an evening filled with people outdoors enjoying perfect weather. The enormous bag of crap food and the drink holders heavy with sickness made me wonder if I could do this work for even one more day.

Later, I brought a small and tidy grocery order to an elderly man who lives in my neighborhood, just a few blocks from my house. His list was perfectly organized, produce together, then dairy, then pantry. His items were lean yet of good quality; organic strawberries, a head of romaine; one pineapple, a certain kind of soup, etc. It made me happy to shop for him and drop the three well-packed bags on his front porch, and another day of this work revealed itself as possible.

In truth, there’s a slightly addictive aspect to it, the thrill of anticipation when the ping of an offer arrives. A little dopamine rush, like you’d get at a slot machine. I’m not proud to say that, but it’s accurate. For every moment of despair there’s another of hope. That’s ridiculous, I know. but it’s a ridiculous circumstance.

Emmanuel Carrere’s recent book of essays came next. I tend to have at least three books going at a time, often more, so there was a bit of overlap. I was in my car in a long line at P. Terry’s (a popular local burger chain that I frequented back in real life on behalf of my kids, though I’d been known to indulge in an occasional veggie patty myself, and had certainly stolen plenty of my children’s french fries) when I got to the chapters excerpted from an Italian women’s magazine. Captivated, I shifted from neutral into first with the book open on my steering wheel, moving forward a stilted foot or so at a time, engaging and disengaging the emergency brake with one hand, turning pages with the other. After I picked up the order I delivered it to a large house on a cul-de-sac; chickens ran free in the street. There was fenced in front yard that clearly contained a swimming pool, and a small pool party seemed to be happening. A handsome young man in swim trunks came to the gate to collect the food. He thanked me in a charming Aussie accent, and the tip was good.

The best tip I’ve yet received came yesterday evening, my last Run of the day. Seven pizzas and two anitpasti salads from a cult-fave pizzeria near UT campus, to be brought to an address in an expensive part of town, a bit far away in the hills to the west of the city. I suspected the tip would be large; I imagined, correctly, a rare gathering of teenagers– in this case, a 16th birthday party. As I drove through the gate and up the driveway I spotted the requisite balloon sculpture in the otherwise eerily abandoned front yard. An anxious dad stepped out and gestured for me to place the boxes on a bench to the left of the front door, next to a large jug of hand sanitizer.


“How great that the teenagers are able to get together to celebrate,” I said cheerily. “I bet they’re very happy about it.”

He looked exasperated. “They’re supposed to be staying six feet away from each other, but they’re not,” he said. I realized that behind the exasperation was raw cold fear. Later, the Favor app informed me that his wife had tipped me $51.75.

On my way home, I took a wrong exit and ended up at a boat ramp under the 360 bridge stretching over Lake Austin. I parked, walked down to the water. A young couple was toweling off on the shore. There were several motorboats out on the lake; it was a gorgeous evening, who could blame them? I placed hands in the cool clear water, sifting idly through sand and shells. I’ve been desperate for a swim, but I din’t have a swim suit or a towel and I wasn’t keen on the boats for company. I’ll find a time to come back, I thought, later at night when the boats are gone. I took two shells home with me to prove it had really happened, I had stuck me hands in lake water, it wasn’t just another vivid dream.

April 25th-ish, or whatever day it is…

It’s Monday, the people want Thai food. There’s a mysterious and annoying crack in my windshield that I believe has nothing to do with driving around town running Favors and making deliveries and everything to do with obnoxious, vindictive squirrels. An elderly man wanted a small number of grocery items, including olive oil and toilet paper. Earlier today the governor of Texas made an announcement about cautious steps towards furthering commerce. I’m not a fan, but I understand: there are counties in Texas, vast swaths of land, with zero cases of the infection. It must feel like a mirage to them, as those circumstances– zero cases, the opportunity for this pandemic to feel as though it could be a hoax– feel mirage-like to me.

The cats around town continue to make eye contact, telling me: Here I am, here you are. Here we are. We are here.

The evenings have been beautiful, a bumper crop of fireflies. Yesterday I watched a small blackbird chase a fat beetle under the canopy of a pecan tree; it seemed impossible that the bird couldn’t catch the beetle, and the beetle seemed as though it was fucking with the bird, but when they finally played their real cards, the bird nose-dived and the beetle got away… for now.

A different night, walking my dog, a kid on a bicycle who couldn’t have been older than thirteen approached from behind, politely swerving across the street to give me some space. As he pedaled past, I heard him say something, I assumed to himself. I smiled to myself, because it sounded like he said, “You have a very nice bootie.”

He rounded the block then returned. This time, he slowed down as he passed, slow enough to look at me directly and say, softly: You have a very nice bootie. The he smiled hugely, looked down at the asphalt and zoomed off.

The Runner Diaries: April 22

I ran many Favors yesterday to make up for skipping Monday.  Sometimes I double up and toggle myself “available” on GrubHub as well; the GrubHub runs are less constant/frequent than the Favors, and because they track my location (yes, creepy), it often works that I can accept a Favor food-to-go errand, call in the order to the restaurant, then accept a GrubHub errand nearby.  In the time it takes the first restaurant to prepare the food, I can pick up the GrubHub food (pre-ordered by the customer and usually ready by the time I arrive), deliver it, then head to the Favor restaurant. The GrubHub runs are often depressing, fast food for unhealthy-looking sorts in shoddy apartment compounds. It feels rather balletic, though, when it works out perfectly timed, to have two things going at once like that; a finely choreographed dance.

Yesterday after getting the kids situated I ran one late morning Favor to a grocery store, as I needed to shop anyway for my own house.  It was, us usual if I run morning Favors, a “grocery shop for a senior Texan” errand, but with an unusually concise list:  a six-pack of Shiner Bock beer, several flavors of sugar-free Jello, and a container of Clorox wipes.  No wipes, I had to text from the store, and the only flavor sugar-free Jello available was strawberry.  Better double down on the beer, then, was the good-natured response.   When I pulled up to the address to make delivery a couple waved to me from lawn chairs in their driveway.  They looked as though they were waiting to watch a parade go by.  “Something for you,” one of them said, gesturing towards two grungy dollar bills weighted down by a canister of wipes on a plastic folding table.  “The money,” the woman said, “not the wipes!”.  They cackled.

I went home after that to deliver my own groceries and deal with lunch for the boys.  They were going to their dad’s house for dinner that evening for the first time in weeks, an exception being made due to Laszlo’s birthday, so as evening approached I had no cares.  My boyfriend was stuck watching a Lord of the Rings movie with two of his daughters, loud soundtrack, the grunts of Orcs, a running commentary by the girls.   I was happy to escape into my car away from the noise.  I knew the Favor Runs that time of day would likely all be to-go orders from restaurants, so I switched on the GrubHub app as well, and spent a few hours traveling around the northern part of the city to different restaurants, fast food windows, houses and apartments.   I watched the light turn golden and the sky turn pink, sometimes through my windshield, sometimes in my rear view mirror.  It was shaping up to be a beautiful night.  I listened to music, singing along many times in a row with Johnathan Richman to “I was Dancing in a Lesbian Bar,”  trying to perfectly nail the lyrics, the scansion, the inflection.

A little after 8 I was getting tired, and the boys would be home soon, so I made one final run to an address near my empty yoga studio.  I dropped off the food, toggled “stop running” and pulled into the parking lot of the shopping center containing my studio space, surprised to see a few cars.  It appeared there was a Spanish AA meeting going on in a neighboring suite; I wondered how that worked, maybe a very small group sitting quite far apart.   I let myself into the studio, used the restroom, watered the indoor plant and the sage growing in a pot under the eave on the sidewalk.

Back in my car, I realized I hadn’t eaten since breakfast.  I hit the drive-through of a taqueria for a vegetarian mushroom taco on flour, placing an envelope of dollar bills from various old people into the gloved hand of the cashier.  “Keep the change, ” I told him.

A block away from my house I pulled over, not wanting my time alone to end.  I rolled down the windows, ate the taco in my car, then re-entered the rest of my life.