untitled by Abby Klinkenberg

The last brown bag dropped with a thud on the marble countertop. She suddenly let out a breath that she had only then realized she’d been holding in, and stepped back to survey the distorted line of groceries in front of her before looking down at her latex-gloved hands. She’d always hated the chalk inside them that would linger in her palm lines and under her nails, accompanied by that sickly chemical smell. She’d felt much more comfortable when they were merely used as makeshift balloons whose bloated fingers would always fascinate and placate her angsty toddlers.

The dog came up to her left side, silently pleading for attention with his suppliant brown eyes. Since the quarantine started, he’d been getting spoiled—perhaps the sole soul pleased with the whole ordeal. She reached down to give him a scratch between the ears and wondered if the thin rubbery layer between them bothered the pup as much as it bothered her. The sensory disconnect was unsettling; expecting to feel the thick shag of his golden coat, she only registered a sterilized shadow of warmth. So many particularities had been stamped out of life these days, replaced by ill-fitting abstractions. With a furrowed brow, she removed the glove with a powdery snap and reached down again. The dog let out a sigh of satisfaction and she liked knowing that he, too, felt the difference.

After that moment of tactile communion, she grabbed yet another glove and resigned herself to that latex half-millimeter that stood between herself and the rest of the world. Then, one by one, she unpacked each product before spending a full thirty-seconds running a disinfectant wipe over its packaging. The repetitive movements were calming, almost meditative; she could dedicate her meticulous attention to the immediate task at hand and nothing else. In her concentration, she buffed even the inner edges of plastic casings with a fervor rarely seen outside of jewelers, rare coin collectors, and sportscar aficionados. Making her way through each bag, she imagined vicious viruses and bacteria as monstrous, towering shadows that she was tasked with compelling into submission. In the end, she had made use of fourteen wipes, which sat blackened and limp at the bottom of the trashcan. She stared after them a moment and thought about how many thousands of years those fibers would take to decompose, then about the half-life of her own sinews.

Such morbidity was commonplace in their residence at this time; the coffins stacked at the local ice rink were a frequent topic of casual conversation. Each week, she would take her kids to peer into its darkened windows and they would all stare, silent. Since this ritual started, they had begun competing to see who could enact the most elaborate and convincing death scene, to which she always applauded and rendered both thoughtful commentary and numerical judgments, grades from one to ten. She shook herself out of her daze and folded up the empty bags.

For the more delicate items—the fruits, vegetables, and eggs—she filled the steel basin of the sink with lukewarm water, to which she reluctantly and perhaps a bit desperately added the slightest bit of disinfecting soap, which frothed up with purpose. Each of the 36 eggs resting in the cardboard carton took their turn in the neatly drawn bath. She delicately lifted the first from its cup, feeling its internal weight jiggle subtly within its thin shell. Careful not to disrupt the integrity of the yolk, she slowly submerged the egg under, rubbing its organic-smooth surface with her latex-smooth fingers, quietly determined to dislodge whatever agents of disease might be lurking in its microscopic fissures.

She was reminded of bathing her daughter in the first weeks after her birth, when she had clipped her own fingernails down almost to their quick and examined each centimeter of the child twice over before risking the sting of shampoo falling in her eyes. The first time she heard her howl at the pain, she found herself crying too and ended up curled on the bathroom floor, holding her daughter to her chest, cooing palliative tones through hot tears. Naturally, from then on, she had to trust bath-time to her partner.

Presently, she found herself grateful that eggs could not howl, and delicately rinsed the residual bubbles off of one oatmeal shell before gingerly placing the last into a sanitized, white plastic carton.

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