Darryl White has a BA in Psychology from University California, Los Angeles, a MA in English from California State University, Northridge. He also possesses a MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University.
His fiction has been published in the Northridge Review, Transfer Magazine, and the Write Launch. He is the 2019 Leo Litvak Fiction Award Winner for the short story titled Lonnie. He has a passion for speculative fiction and his work typically explores characters who, by class, race, or socioeconomic status are pushed to the fringe of their society. He also cannot survive without buffalo wings and margaritas.
We are all afraid of the virus. I have that numbing dread starting in the forebrain and temples that stretches from California to New York down the back of my neck where it pulls all the nearby muscles into a tightly packed bunch. Turning my head or rolling my shoulders never helps. The dread remains until I go to sleep or smoke enough to forget why I’ve been locked inside so long.
I’ve been sitting on my damn couch for the past five months. My clothes rarely change, jeans and T-shirt with a shoe logo emblazoned across the front. I haven’t had a reason to dress different since the virus came crashing down on my head. Black people were supposed to be emancipated a long time ago and yet I’m stuck inside my small two bedroom apartment in southeast San Diego.
From the outside my apartment complex has fresh gray paint and bright blue doors with tarnished numbers. A black fence surround four two-story complexes huddled at the corners of a partially wilted grass patch with white benches and ash-black barbecue grills where families in shorts and tank tops gather on three day weekends for carne asada or ribs. Earthy smoke and family laughter float through open doors and windows. And as the sun gets lower, the music gets louder. Cardi and Meghan’s Wet Ass Pussy shake the walls.
On bad days, bare-chested fistfights between the brown men with green serpent tattoos stretching down their arms and potbellied construction workers in wife-beaters break out over a pickup basketball game in the parking lot. Wives and side chicks flash fluorescent green or orange fingernails while cussing each other out. Sometimes my upstairs neighbors Joaquin and Noah make out in their Lakers jerseys. The singsong chants of teenagers echo in the distance as they hide-and-go-get-it away from parental supervision. Newborns shriek for a mothers’ breasts and occasionally the moans of Trevon and Andalucia getting it on through thin walls make me jealous for not having my own Boo.
All of that was before the virus. Now the grass patch is barren, trash and leaves have stacked up because the maintenance folks haven’t been by to cleanup in sometime. I haven’t smelled smoke or heard Wet Ass Pussy in months. Even Trevon and Andalucia are silent. My favorite small blessing used to be streaming my favorite Netflix show after working the afterschool program at Garfield Elementary. I used to shepherd until parents could drag themselves from their shifts at Jack in the Box or Target to pick up their kids. Now all the Black kids are at home. Distance learning. There’s no one to look after so I’m out of a job.
So I’m home all the time, stuck inside with my eight-year-old daughter Samira and my Mama. I can’t move around without bumping elbows with somebody. Social distance my ass. Mama moved in a month after the virus hit. She heard Black folks was catching it left and right so she quit her shift at the homeless shelter. Her unemployment wasn’t enough to cover the house she was renting and she was asked to move out. She could’ve stayed but I didn’t explain the new eviction rules because my unemployment check was short and at the time I was doubting I could keep my own roof. With the addition of Mama’s check, I could manage the rent and keep the cable and Wi-fi going. I didn’t think it through though. Mama took Samira’s room. Samira had to move into my room. I lost my privacy and my slim chance to get some.
I wake up before for everyone else to have a little privacy. This morning I scratch my stomach and watch cartoons. Samira’s up and she joins me in the living room.
She hugs me. “Morning Daddy.”
“Good Morning Boobug. Did you have a good sleep?” I embrace her thin frame. She feels fragile and warm at the same time. Her hair smells like the coconut hair grease Mama puts in it. She’s wearing blue Elsa pajamas and it bothers me that a young Black girl is wearing a blonde girl. I try to remind myself it doesn’t mean anything like that. It doesn’t. I kiss her forehead.
“I slept excellent,” Samira grins.
Excellent is a ‘big’ word she fell in love with and says it every chance she gets. Samira disengages, sits cross-legged on the gray carpet, and brushes Generic Black Barbie’s hair. The doll’s head is too big, its eyes too wide, and it has that creepy bargain bin pink smile.
On TV some talking dogs with tech backpacks help an owl out of a tree. I hear the door to Samira’s old room open. So much for privacy. I cut my eyes at Mama as she passes the living room and goes into the kitchen, her yellow slippers slap against the faux hardwood.
“Morning Boobug,” Mama says.
“Excellent morning Nana,” Samira says not looking up from her doll.
I’m surprised Mama’s up this early. She usually doesn’t wake until after two o’ clock. She opens the refrigerator door and blinks her bloodshot eyes like she’s reading a book but doesn’t understand the big words. I curl my nose. I can smell the alcohol from here. I look at my cellphone it’s not even nine o clock yet. Jesus.
“Deontay, we’re out of milk,” Mama says.
I snort. We both know she’s not going anywhere with the virus out there. We also both know she’s really talking about that Carlo Rossi. Shortly after moved in, I found her passed out on the kitchen floor with two empty bottles of Rossi topping the trashcan. I had to carry her to the bathtub so she could soak that liquor stink away. How dare she get bent in my house where her own granddaughter could see! Some fucking people.
It’s not like I can really do anything about out. We’re all shut ins, prisoners to our vices. Even I, in the late evenings, used to linger out on the patio and smoke the tension out of my chest. My new state of mind would stain the colors of the night and turn the moon green. I hadn’t had a good smoke in about two weeks. I don’t have the extra funds and I refuse to buy that brownish turd looking shit my upstairs neighbors sell on the side. Trevon told me they cut their shit with a little of that green-monster. I don’t fuck with that.
“We’re out of cereal too… for the baby,” Mama says.
“She’s eight-years-old, Ma.” I mash the up volume on remote and cartoon laughter fills the living room.
Mama talks over the TV. “She still needs to eat.”
“I’ll make her some eggs,” I yell back.
“We’re out of eggs too.”
Shit. She’s got me. “Make a list.”
My mother shuffles over the drawer and pulls out a small sticky pad and three pens. She test each one on the pad and picks the one last leaves an ink mark. She puts the other two pens back in the drawer as if they’ll magically grow ink the next time she checks. She studies the refrigerator and then the cupboards, writing a whole lot of shit down. I tap a few keys on my phone to check my Cal Fresh balance. $58.82, not even three digits. How did it get so goddamn low?
Fuck. I have go outside. Why do I have to go outside? There was this woman who caught the virus without going outside. She was asleep at home with her man. About five in the morning they heard some noise like breaking wood coming from the front door. Her man grabbed his gun because they thought someone was breaking in. The virus took her life during the confusion and commotion. She dropped dead in her own bedroom. Being sequestered wasn’t protection from the virus. The homies say should’ve had her mask on. What kind of bullshit is that? At home is where there should be no penalty for showing your skin. The virus is trying to take that small freedom away from us.
That woman was unmarried, no children. No dependents. My daughter has no one else but me. Mama’s not all the way there on most days. Her time of raising kids has long past.
Samira’s mom, Nikki is in jail. Me and Nikki hooked up almost a decade before the virus when we both worked at the same afterschool program. She had a penchant for long blue braids with matching nail polish and black yoga pants that showed all that thigh and ass. She was slender, fair skinned, and possessed a deep raspy smoker’s voice. Our relationship imploded six years after Samira was born. Nikki met a six-two Negro with a Tom Slick ball fade and platinum chains as thick as my thumb. He drove a black Mercedes with silver rims and speakers blasting from two blocks away.
The story that I got from Nikki’s sister was that the cops came for Tom Slick but got Nikki instead. I imagine Tom Slick must’ve come home, eyes bright with paranoia. I imagine him pacing, moving between the stove and refrigerator. He probably called her over, put his arms around her waist. She probably braided her arms behind his neck. I imagine them kissing, their tongues sliding together. I feel it so deeply my dick begins to swell. Tom Slick pulls away, asks for a favor. Hold this bag for me Boo, I gotta be outta town for a minute. She probably looks at the black gym bag and wonders why the zipper has a lock on it. But she’s not gonna say nothing. She knows what’s required to be the woman in Tom Slick’s life. What’s in it? she asks. He kisses her again and says, My shit. He pulls her into the bedroom, closes the door, and blows her back out. When they finish, he probably pulls her close, kisses her one last time before he slides on his Timberlands, buckles his pants, and heads out the door.
The very next day, cops knocked on Nikki’s door asking for Tom Slick. She answered. They had a warrant. They searched the place, found the bag, and arrested her for felony drug possession. Nikki is incarcerated out of state. With the travel restrictions and low funds, we can’t visit. It wasn’t like Nikki is calling home to speak to her child on the regular.
“Milk, bread, rice, eggs, beans, orange juice, jelly, some Rossi,” Mama says.
You can’t buy Rossi with Cal Fresh. She wants me to use cash for it and she isn’t giving up none. “Just write it the fuck down, you don’t have to tell me too,” I say.
She fixes me with that eye, it’s a squint with the skin scrunching around the corners of eyes darkened to a deep smooth black like onyx covered in clear nail polish. That look was the first warning. You didn’t get a second. My punishment depended on how good her aim was that day. Mama had the penchant to grab anything, and I mean anything, close and throw it. Hot comb, flat iron, coffee pot, frying pan, forks, spoons, various kitchen knives, pillows, shoes, even an entire raw chicken that slapped against my face leaving stinging slimy wetness down my cheek and neck.
I know the deal so I shut the fuck up, roll off the couch, pull on my Jordans, throw on my black face mask, and grab my car keys.
My daughter runs to the end table and snatches up her pink mask. “Can I go?”
“You’re not dressed, stay with Nana,” I say.
She’s probably going stir crazy and feels the need to be outside, but I don’t want her out in the open. The virus is just too dangerous.
“I never get to go,” she pouts.
I squeeze her nose. She leans back, scrunches her face, giggles, shoo’s my hand away, and starts poking me in the stomach, her small fingers making indents into my soft midsection. Its’s annoying but I smile and chuckle. We get into a miniature giggling stomach poking war, fingers flying. Poke. Block. Poke. Block. Block. Poke. I pretend I’m old and slow and she gets poke after successful poke until I surrender.
She raises both arms in victory. “Can I have some ice cream?”
It’s not in the budget. It’s not essential. It’s a waste of what little balance I have. “Yeah, sure.”
She does a little dance, kicking out both legs and throwing a fist up into the air. I shake my head, but I’m smiling. I’m great. Feeling the best I’ve felt in a while. I ruffle her hair and head for the door.
“Alright Mama, I’ll be back,” I say. I check my pockets. I have my license, Cal Fresh card, unemployment benefits card, and debit card. The last two with balances so low they are close to useless.
Mama nods. She’s sitting at the dinner table. Her eyes are half-lidded and she’s leaning. Her hair is grayer each day since she hasn’t been able to get to the salon. She’ll be asleep before I leave the parking lot. My daughter for all intents and purposes will be unsupervised for the next twenty minutes. My stomach bottoms. I probably should take her with me, but a Dad’s first duty is to keep his kid safe.
I climb into my Hyundai, at least the gas is close to full. With the virus I haven’t been driving anywhere except Food For Less, which still has everything, even fresh fruit and vegetables. I typically buy frozen. It’s better to have something that lasts than something that will go bad in a few days.
I turn up the volume on the morning radio show when I hear the word, virus. They are talking about another Black man caught by the virus. Apparently the brother was supposedly selling loose cigarettes without tax stamps out in New York. The virus got hold of him, wrestled him to the ground, choked him. Several witnesses heard him say, I can’t breathe eleven times before he dropped dead face down the gray sidewalk.
I shake my head. Why wasn’t he wearing his mask? It’s protection. I’m not stupid enough to go outside without my mask. Maybe the virus is random. Maybe it’s airborne. Or maybe it can see faces. See skin color. Either way, a mask helps hide my identity, makes me look like everyone else.
Food For Less is less than a mile from my home so I head down Euclid stopping at the intersection on Market. I make a right and pull into the parking lot. There is a sign in front of the store that says, No mask, No entry. And there is a line of green shopping carts and a small kiosk with disinfectant and two rolls of brown paper. I grab a basket and wait a cart length behind a man with a red, white, and blue flag colored mask wiping down his shopping cart. I wipe my cart down and go inside.
I see other customers pushing their carts. Their faces are covered like mine and some even wear gloves. Another way to avoid the virus is to keep your hands covered. I don’t do that. Maybe I should. I just don’t like the feeling. My hands get all sweaty and sticky and it feels unnatural when I touch things. I probably should start though. It’s another way to hide my skin. Who knows? The virus seems to be fascinated with Black hands. Especially when they aren’t empty.
I remember another incident where a Black man fell victim of the virus in his grandmother’s backyard. It was in the evening and the man was allegedly seen breaking windows. He was chased into the backyard. It was dark and all the neighbors could see was the glow steadily moving. Then suddenly the virus struck. His phone dropped. The iPhone glow falling like a comet in the dark. He tried to crawl before going motionless. His grandmother found his corpse sprawled in the grass without a mask.
I keep my cellphone in my pocket. I don’t want to end up like him. In fact everything I do is to avoid being a victim of the virus. I push my cart down each aisle, plucking up each item on the list, and doing mental mathematics so I don’t go over my balance. I walk down the ice cream aisle, a heavy set Karen with a pink facemask studies me like I’m doing something wrong. She’s looking past my mask at the skin beneath. I tuck my chin, lower my eyes, and hurry past her. I don’t got time for this shit. The longer I’m out here the more likely the virus will catch me.
I pull open the freezer door and cold air blasts against my face. I grab the French vanilla, the biggest container they got. With that item I’m pretty close to my limit, provided my mental math is right. There’s still a few things on the list, bread, potato chips and orange juice. I’ll have to get them on my next visit. And fuck Mama’s Rossi. She’s going to be pissed, but oh the fuck well.
There aren’t too many people in the store but there’s only two cashiers open. The lines are pushed back into the aisles. Every-fucking-body’s basket is packed, cases of soda, packs of grapes, a couple gallons of milk, countless bags of potato chips, mountains of toilet paper and paper towels. Who the fuck needs all that? I look at my anemic items. I feel slightly embarrassed. I’d load up if I could afford it.
Watching the cashier slide detergent and syrup along the conveyor belt reminds me of another victim of the virus. Another Black man caught the virus while allegedly using a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill to make a purchase. He also wasn’t wearing a mask. He was tackled to the ground where the full weight of the virus kneeled on his neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds. He died in front of bystanders, gasping and calling for his mother. I never knew you could catch the virus for trying to make a purchase. And here I am, in a grocery store. Now I’m wishing I’d worn gloves, wishing for any extra protection that’ll get me home safe.
I reach the cashier sequestered behind a clear plastic screen, her facemask is pulled down so that it doesn’t cover her nose. She is a Latina with dark curly hear and a black mole under her left eye. Heat rises into my neck and blooms at the tips of my ears. I haven’t tasted a woman’s lips since the virus started.
“Hi,” she says.
“Hello,” I say. I don’t know what the lower half of her face looks like, but I hope the missing puzzle piece is Nadine Velazquez.
“Out for a bit of shopping?”
“Yeah, a few nit knacks. Has it been busy today?” These aren’t the words that I want to say but those are the words you say with about fifty people stacked behind you and you’re trying to avoid the virus.
She scans the ice cream. “Birthday?”
“For my daughter.” I can’t help it, but my face and voice soften.
The cashier laughs. “She has you wrapped around her finger.”
I rub the back of my neck and chuckle. “Women have that power.”
She holds my eyes. “We do.”
She finishes ringing up my items. The total is $57.32 and I manage to hold in my wince. I have just enough to cover it. I pull out my Cal Fresh Card and meet the cashier’s eyes. She sees what’s in my hands. Her gaze loses its glow. She knows I’m struggling. She knows that I can’t do anything for her. That I can’t provide for my family. I’m demoted from boyfriend material to sleazebag customer. Or maybe it’s in my head? Maybe it’s my perception that’s changed?
I lower my eyes and concentrate on typing in my pin number. What if it doesn’t go through? What if they think I’m doing something counterfeit? Will the virus show up? I put my card back in my wallet before my hands start shaking. The register seems to hang… It’s fucking thinking about calling the virus on me. The cashier seems to agree with her asshole judgmental machine and avoids eye contact.
The virus is rampant in low income neighborhoods. Black men like myself, for some reason, seem to be the most at risk. Sometimes brown skin feels like a bullseye where all of life’s inequalities line up to take shots. I remember another story about a Black man who fell asleep in his car in the drive-thru of a fast food joint. He was woken up, there was a struggle, which resulted in him running away. He couldn’t outrun the virus. It got him and he died mid-step. His body collapsing on the black parking lot concrete. He, like the others, did not have a mask.
When the cash drawer pops open with an audible ding. I release a slow breath.
“Have a nice day,” the cashier says.
“You too,” I say, bagging up my groceries.
I can’t wait to get to my car. I’m almost running. I throw my wallet on the passenger seat and my groceries into the backseat. I don’t bother putting the shopping cart away. I just push it into the empty space next to me.
I’m back on the road. I pull my mask down, stretch my mouth and cheeks by opening and closing my mouth, and taste the fresh air. A mask is so hot and stifling, a barrier between you and the world. I turn up the radio and press the gas. I want home as quickly as possible. I want to see my daughter’s eyes light up when she sees the ice cream.
The traffic light is yellow. I’m going too fast. The light turns red just before I reach the intersection. I accelerate and blow through it. I look into my rearview mirror. I grin a little. No harm. No foul. And then I see a black and white pull out of a side street. My lungs tighten. It’s difficult to breath. My heart speeds up. It feels like I’m running except I’m sitting still. I keep checking, hoping it’ll drive past me. It accelerates and pulls behind me. Red and blue lights bombard my car. I consider keeping going. Of making it home. Of kissing my daughter. I know that’ll make it worse, but there’s a part of me that feels that path is safer. And then there’s that other voice, the one that says it isn’t my time. I decide to listen to that one. It’s… It’s… hopeful.
I’m sweating as I pull over. Thick beads appear on my forehead and dribble down the sides of my face. Is this the onset of the virus? I turn down my music, roll down my window, place my hands in the nine and three o clock position, and hope this will minimize my chances.
The police officer gets out of his squad car. I don’t see a person. I see a viral RNA. I read there are about one hundred and eighty RNA viruses that are exchanged between humans and other hosts. When it comes to being Black, the virus kills on contact or by airborne transmission accompanied by repeated popping noises.
The virus glares into my car. He’s wearing a blue mask with blue gloves. “That light you went through was red.”
“I’m just on my way home to my daughter,” I say. I stare at the gun on his belt.
He sees me looking at his gun and I know I’ve made a mistake. My mask isn’t up. His hand closes over his sidearm. He takes two steps back. “Step out of your vehicle.”
I know getting out makes it more likely for me to die from the virus. I don’t want to do it, but I won’t survive by staying in my car either.
“Sure.” I raise my hands so that he can see they’re empty and step slowly out of my car.
He looks me over from head to toe. His eyes roving over my pockets. I imagine he’s looking for bulges, for possible weapons.
“Lift your shirt and turn around.”
I comply. I lift my shirt slowly and turn a full circle. When I face him he seems tenser. The muscles in his forearm stand out like corded vines. His eyes are pinpricks. He’s holding onto his holstered weapon like he’s holding onto his life. How is he the one in danger? He has a gun. A bulletproof vest. He can call for backup. I’m unarmed. Scared. I just want to get home to my daughter.
“I need to see some identification,” the virus says.
I touch my front pockets. My wallet’s not there. My heart jumps into my throat. Did I leave it at the grocery store? I pat myself down. Did I drop it? I look for it on the ground.
“Identification,” the virus growls.
I look inside my car. My wallet’s on the passenger seat. Something loosens in my chest. My license is all I need to save myself from the virus. I turn and reach for it.
The virus screams something so fast and shrill I almost miss it. I’m getting my wallet like he asked. I guess I need to hurry. My hand closes over my wallet. And then the air leaves my body. Every molecule just up and forces its way out through my mouth, nose, and skin. My body spasms like I’ve been struck in the back repeatedly with spears or something. I’m slammed forward into the driver’s seat. My elbow hits the steering wheel. My head hits something hard. I don’t feel the pain. What’s happening? What’s happen? The only thing that makes sense is that my daughter won’t get her ice cream. My daughter won’t get her ice… my daughter—
My ears are ringing. I smell gun powder. I can’t catch my breath. I’m face down in the front seat of my car. My knees dig into the ground but my legs are too weak to hold me up. My body slides out of the car and flops against the concrete. The sharp jolt of bone on pavement turns my insides to fire. My back hurts. But from the inside. Every time I try to take a deep breath, I feel my lungs fill with liquid like I’m drowning. I’m gasping. I’m begging.
I can’t feel my body. I can’t feel anything. I can’t… I can’t breathe…