Chess, mooning, candy shopping: A kid grows up in family isolation.
“It’s like losing a tennis match to someone who calls her racket a thingie.”
Day X I teach Claire chess. She’s nine. After example moves, and a few trial runs, we play a full game. I don’t give 100%. I don’t roll over, either. I play half-assed. I consider all available moves but not all their implications.
I am shocked when she beats me. She makes at least one critical move I fail to anticipate. In my book that’s a solid win.
Still, she refuses to call the knight a knight. She calls it a horse. This only amplifies her victory. It’s like losing a tennis match to someone who calls her racket a thingie.
Day X + 1 We FaceTime Peter’s and Claire’s grandparents. The result is that weird mix of generations where the grandparents can’t hear and the grandchildren irreverently suggest the ensuing non sequiturs are drug-related.
Claire: Grandma, we’re making peanut butter cookies with M&Ms!
Grandma: You’re making M&Ms?!
Peter: Grandma, how are we going to make M&Ms? Are you smoking the weed again?
Grandma: Am I what?
Peter: Are you smoking the weed?
Grandma: Am I smoking the what?
Peter: The weeeeed. Grandma, the weed.
Grandma: Peter, are your bros leaving you alone?
Peter: Yes. They’re in quarantine.
Grandma: Are they home?
Peter: Yes, Grandma, they’re in quarantine. Where are they going to be? Grandma, are you okay? Did you find my stash, Grandma?
Grandma: Did I what?
Peter: Are you weeding the smoke, Grandma?
Peter is a good boy. But he’s fourteen. And if it sounds like I’m suggesting that’s the opposite of good, then we understand each other.
The next thing that happens during this FaceTime is: Peter moons my father-in-law. This being Peter’s grandfather, they share the kind of utterly insular and on-its-own-terms relationship that renders moot, ridiculous, all outside judgment. Knowing my place here, I say nothing. Peter positions the phone with a deliberate hand and, with the other, slips his pants off his ass. The phone screen fills with underwear.
Peter’s grandfather watches this. He’s open-mouth laughing. Couldn’t be more delighted. Now, Bill has cerebral palsy. Reciprocating with his own moon would involve incremental movements requiring outsized time and effort. On the other hand, Bill is three parts Irishman and one part Scot. Have you seen Braveheart?
Forty-five seconds later — belts can be complicated — Peter is staring wide-eyed at his grandfather’s underwear. Nothing like a pandemic to turn a bluff teenager into a giggler.
After dinner, Claire demands we play chess a second time. “I don’t know if this makes sense,” she says, “or if it’s grammatically correct. But I do know you will know so hard I’m beating you that the knowing will hurt.” I understand exactly what she’s saying. It’s the most potent trash talk I’ve heard in years.
Again she beats me. Now she’s calling the knights “cow things.” I’m fairly certain this is pure provocation.
Day X + 4 The family goes for an outdoor walk. We pass people at a remove. Twice we encounter friends. It’s hard to keep six feet away and not seem stinting and self-involved and supercilious. It’s hard to smile from six feet away and not feel sure others suspect pretense in that smile. On the way home, we talk how at least the virus will give us new experiences, irrevocable memories.
A half-hour later, Claire and I drive to Key Food. We’re wearing face masks. She pipes up from the backseat.
Claire: First time going out in a mask.
Claire: We were talking about making memories.
Claire: This is definitely a memory.
Claire: We’ll never forget this.
Claire and I split the shopping list. By maximizing efficiency, we will minimize in-store time and, thus, the risk of exposure. I’m getting milk, yogurt, dumplings, and frozen pizza. Claire’s in charge of Sour Patch Kids, Hershey’s Kisses, and Reese’s Mini Peanut Butter Cups. One of us has the better assignment.
On the ride home, Claire pipes up from the backseat.
Claire: People were staring at me.
George: ’Cause you’re wearing a mask.
Claire: Not just that.
Claire: Because I’m a kid in the candy aisle. I’m a kid wearing a mask in the candy aisle.
Claire: Like a kid in a candy store.
George: Oh. Like you should be all happy, but then you’re wearing a plague mask.
Self-awareness. Scrutiny of motivation. Knowledge of the dark fur that can cling to the ordinary.
Nothing like a pandemic to turn a nine-year-old into a sage.
This feature is also available, in slightly different format, on our blog on Medium, Pandemic 2020.
A former FBI agent, George Choundas has contributed to more than fifty publications. His story collection, The Making Sense of Things, won the Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize from FC2 and was short-listed for the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction from University of North Texas Press, the Robert C. Jones Prize for Short Prose from Pleiades Press, and the St. Lawrence Book Award for Fiction from Black Lawrence Press.