/ Fiction /
Thom grabs a plastic grocery basket with four wheels, three of them askew, and drags it into the Hemköp produce section. At first the grocery store seems normal. There’s a pile of bananas in various shades of yellow, and some apples: Red Delicious, Granny Smith, Pink Lady, Royal Gala. He fills his basket with a dozen apples, eight bananas, and some haggard zucchini, wondering, Is this enough? What he likes best is frozen food. Pop it in, heat it, eat it. Easy. Then back to riffing on the electric bass. If only these Swedes were enlightened enough to sell weed at the grocery store, he’d be set for another month…as long as he could get his hands on some toilet paper.
His pulse quickens as he passes the canned-goods section, where entire shelves are empty. He finds five cans of chickpeas and grabs them all. As he drops the cans into the basket, he thinks, I haven’t had a chickpea outside of a falafel or serving of hummus in at least half a decade. He takes the brimming basket back to the front of the store and transfers the contents to a full metal grocery cart with four functioning wheels, thinking, This is war. I can’t go into battle with a wounded pony. I need a steel stallion. “Iron Man” by Black Sabbath starts playing in his head. He grabs bottles of ketchup, tubs of mayo, oodles of dried noodles, tossing them into his steed. I’m a machine, he thinks. I could live on cans of tuna, pasta, and condiments for years if I have to. I Am Legend.
As he heads to the frozen-food aisle, he passes an emaciated man upwards of seventy, pushing a walker and wearing a surgical mask, eyes resigned to death. Thom feels a twinge of fear and hopelessness; he calms himself by recalling the couple grams of hash that remain in his apartment. Glancing at the man again, he thinks about Victor Frankl describing the two schools of eating bread in Auschwitz. Either they would devour their scrap of bread in a couple of satisfying mouthfuls that gave a fleeting illusion of satiation, or they’d keep it in their pocket and risk losing their sustenance—during a beating, for example—while just having a nibble here and there. The latter eventually became Frankl’s favored approach. It occurs to Thom that reading Man’s Search for Meaning is allowing him to see reality through a different lens. Although thisi scourge came on so suddenly, and people are acting as if the situation is dire, it is still hard to imagine the pain of a single day in a Nazi concentration camp.
When he arrives at the frozen-food aisle, all he finds is three generic pizzas: two plain cheese and one pepperoni. He adds them to the cart, feeling like he’s trapped in a zombie apocalypse movie. Looking around at his fellow shoppers, he wonders if any of them would turn to devouring human flesh when the remaining units of this food—neatly wrapped in plastic or housed in colorful cardboard after having traveled thousands of miles through fragile supply chains—have finally disappeared.
He has heard about the run on toilet paper. He’s down to his last roll. Thom hates rationing anything, especially that stuff. As he rounds the corner to the paper-goods section, he can see the entire aisle is almost empty. He scours every nook and spies three rolls of generic toilet paper in the far corner. Just then a wide man with a full beard hanging down past his chest, standing about six-six (almost half a foot taller than Thom), turns the corner and spies the booty as well. Thom lunges at the toilet paper, stuffing a couple of rolls under his arm, and gets the hell out of there.
He heads to the checkout but then remembers he’d told Mercutio that he was bringing over rib eye steaks to celebrate booking the first paying gig for their two-man band, The Midnight Assassins. When he gets to the meat department, he has to pee, so turns to a man who’s stocking a shelf with peanut butter. “Hey, where can I find the toilets?” he asks in Swedish. Compulsively he adds three jars of peanut butter to his cart.
The man replies that they’re occupied. When Thom asks, “With what?” the employee switches to English and says, “What I should have said is, unavailable.”
“But I shop here every fucking week,” Thom says, feeling the blood rushing to his temples.
“And we appreciate your business, sir,” the man says as he hoists the corners of his mouth into a smile. “We just need to act in the best interests of every one of our valued customers’ personal safety.”
Thom decides to hold it, feeling that it isn’t in his best interest to risk losing his bounty in an altercation that might lead to expulsion from the store.
When he gets to the meat section, he suddenly knows why Mercutio chuckled when he said that he was planning to pick up rib eyes. In his thirty years on the planet, he’s never seen anything like it. Not only is there no entrecôte (as rib eyes are called here) but there isn’t any beef. And the choice cuts of everything else are gone too. He decides to take the pig liver over the pig feet and pickled herring. The thought strikes him that the gig they’d booked a couple of weeks before, which is still over a month away, will most likely be canceled. His heart begins to descend.
The lines to the three open registers are all at least twenty people deep. He counts only about a half-dozen masks. Those who wear them appear to be either upwards of seventy, East Asian, or both. Thom wouldn’t be caught dead in one of those things and is once again grateful that he has left the US behind. Fuck Trump, the rat race, the hassle. He clenches his teeth, the pressure on his bladder spreading to the rest of his body. He does Kegel exercises until it’s his turn to pay, but by then he’s starting to double over. He’s unsure if his black Levi’s will make it out of Hemköp unscathed.
Like everywhere in Sweden, he has to bag his own groceries (something he disdains) while dealing with the sea of canned goods coming down the conveyor belt from customers behind him. A panic attack is rising, and he feels a warm sensation in his pants.
* * *
His studio apartment smells dank. The futon is still folded out into a bed, with mussed sheets on it. He walks over to the corner of the room he uses for a hamper, peels off the soaked jeans, crumples them on top of his three-week-old pile of rags, and heads for his second shower of the week. There’s no shower curtain in the black-tiled bathroom, just a couple of concave, translucent plastic doors.
He starts the shower cold, partly to wash off the embarrassment, partly to punish himself. The water runs over the marks on his forearms from self-inflicted lacerations, mostly of the razor-blade variety, vestiges of harsher punishment during more masochistic periods of his life. Only when his teeth start clattering he allows himself some hot water.
He thinks back to that summer when he had volunteered to teach guitar and English in Oaxaca—eighty days without a hot shower. He’s grateful for one now. His breathing slows to normal as the steam begins to renew him. Water pours over his three tattoos: the one on his right cheek that reads “your name,” which had nearly gotten him into some barroom slug-fests when he informed people of both sexes that their name was tattooed on his ass. The skull tattoo that reads “Death Finds Us All,” once sharp on his six-pack but now starting to sag, and the bleeding red heart on his left pec that simply says “Mama.” He steadies himself against the wall as his sterling skull ring clinks against the tile. He taps the ring, making a rhythm. Thank God for music, he thinks. Wondering if music is a gift from God or if God is a figment of his imagination conjured up in these weak and lonely moments, he shuts off the water, ready to get back out in the world and away from his thoughts.
* * *
In late fall every day Malmö is drab and drizzly, like one interminable gray day: the same dirge playing over and over. Thom reemerges from hiding in a dry pair of pants and descends three flights of stairs. For a moment he stands peering through the glass pane of the front door of his apartment building, taking in the eerily silent streets. Imagining all those microscopic bugs boiling at the opportunity to leap into his body and conquer his immune system, he pulls his hand into his sleeve as he turns the knob and walks out into the foreboding fog. Mercutio’s apartment is only a fifteen-minute walk, but even that little stroll, which he took for granted in the glow of July, feels arduous and spooky and seems to take at least an hour.
When he arrives the apartment feels foreign, as if it was his first time there in a decade; it’s been a little more than a month. The anxiety starts in his wrists and rises sharply as he passes over the threshold, making him instantly aware that it is not the place that is different. The difference is encased in his skin.
It’s a small one-bedroom with an open plan, the dining room table the only demarcation between kitchen and living room. The sweet smell of stewing tomatoes reminds him of his mother laboring over a meal in which he could always taste the affection. This realization takes the edge off his anxiety, just enough that he loosens his grip on the jangling bottle of pills in his pocket.
The acrid smell of ammonia pierces through the stewing tomatoes. Mercutio is fastidious about cleaning, especially in these grave days. Thom’s initial instinct is to hug him, perhaps because Mercutio is the first human being who recognizes him in weeks of thirsting. But as he approaches, Mercutio’s look of elation melts into something closer to terror as he says, “No!” while stepping away.
* * *
Mercutio keeps telling Thom that he’s a “self-actualized man.” Thom usually rebuts him by saying, “Well, I’m a man of action.”
“Do you even know who Maslow is?” Mercutio asks with a sour expression, scrutinizing Thom with eyes like the tips of robin’s eggs.
Thom focuses on Mercutio’s bald dome, a reminder that he is seven years Thom’s senior. Thom shakes his head of nearly shoulder-length black hair with tiny traces of gray, strands he’s missed on his now-daily hunts for salt hidden in the sea of pepper. Thom is used to playing the role of subaltern but he’s never relished it. Sighing, Thom tells Mercutio that he only has a foggy idea that comes from listening to Wayne Dyer. Abraham Maslow had died the day Dyer received his doctoral diploma. Dyer came to see that moment, moving across the stage and being handed the diploma, as receiving a mystical baton in the never-ending race toward humanity’s self-perfection.
Both men felt that self-actualization was the highest state an individual could attain. Maslow believed it was something only a few could achieve, while Dyer thought anyone could aspire to those great heights. This is where Thom’s knowledge grows fuzzy. Years ago he saw that it didn’t really matter. He figured, essentially, that humanity had little hope left, and he’d long since moved on to other pursuits. He began to hear Dyer’s distinctive voice again, opening that portal…
Thom is transported back into the driver’s seat of his rusty black Subaru Impreza, willing his way through a snowstorm to make it to his final bartending shift at the Joint, listening to Dyer’s soothing voice as he tries to fight back the waves of crippling anxiety brought on by intermittent whiteouts, chewing anti-anxiety pills like a kid abusing a PEZ dispenser.
Mercutio snaps him out of his daydream by focusing on Thom’s obsidian eyes and saying, “This is life and death, my friend.” Then, switching to a more professorial tone: “After you figure out the essentials like food, shelter, and covering your ass, you move on to questions of love and sex…”
Thom retreats to memories of wiping down the cherry bar at the Joint, anticipating the arrival of family and friends. Then Mercutio breaks the hallucination again, saying, “It can all be gone like that.” Snapping his fingers, he returns to the lecture on Maslow until he reaches the pinnacle of “self-actualization.”
He’s Italian, so his gyrations and gesticulations alone should be plenty to keep Thom riveted, but he’s having serious trouble focusing on this conversation because of the heaviness in his chest. He can’t let this forbidden thought just gurgle out because he knows it will lead to a torrent of emotion. He hates feeling vulnerable; everything must be calculated.
Since Mercutio had unwittingly opened the door onto the snowy night that marked the end of Thom’s bartending career and relatively carefree youth, his mind keeps bearing down on the nightmare. He’s worked so hard to forget that he thought he’d finally achieved the impossible. But you know how an old corridor opens in your head, and you can’t seem to close it no matter how hard you push? The goblins just keep spilling out. As a man of action, Thom doesn’t sit back and allow himself to be idle with these thoughts. He pickles them with booze, which offers a cloak of relief. But then he rests his head on the pillow, and they start seeping in again. When he is drinking to forget, he can’t help feeling hopelessly alone. How did this all get started? That’s right: Mercutio was telling me about his family in Milan. Everyone dying of the New Plague. “The morgue is full. The streets are empty!” Mercutio explained that they no longer had anywhere to put the bodies, so they’d started stuffing them into the basements of churches.
Thom finishes the glass of Zinfandel in a gulp, then empties the bottle into his glass. Outside everything grows darker and the mist begins to rise…
* * *
Mercutio has fried the pig liver to perfection. They eat it on stale crackers with crumbly pieces of old Parmigiano Reggiano, an almost painfully rich combination. When they’ve finished Mercutio invites his guest to the table. As Thom sits, Mercutio puts his Best of Pavarotti vinyl on the record player and serves them plates of his family’s risotto ai frutti di mare. The tenor, his mother’s favorite, always soothes Thom, even though he has come to regard the man as a gluttonous cartoon character.
After Mercutio’s first bite of seafood risotto, he says, “I can’t understand you.” He sips his rosé. “Not only did you want to pair this masterpiece with Primitivo, you act like you are the only person alive, mate.”
“It’s a solipsist’s dream,” quips Thom, lazily pointing out the window, glass of wine held so loosely he almost drops it.
“No, it is not. That’s the solipsist’s reality.”
“But don’t you think a solipsist wants some cameos in his heroic movie?”
“You miss the point,” Mercutio says dismissively.
Thom looks out the window at the barren streets with tires in various stages of flattening.
“So, Thommy,” Mercutio says, letting his fork drop to the table, jarring Thom from his daydream of impending doom. “About what I’ve been trying to say, mate—”
Feeling the blood oozing into his face, Thom cuts in: “You know, you come off as a non-native poser when you sprinkle in those goofy words.”
Thom is surprised by what came out of his mouth. He doesn’t give a damn about how this dude—or anyone, for that matter—is using the English language as long as he can understand it. He misses his mother tongue, as Swedish always ties his brain in knots. He was never able to pick up the Italian that hung in the air of their apartment in Buffalo when he was a kid. Language is nothing but a burden, Thom thinks. Suddenly he doesn’t want to hear what his friend is going to say.
“You are blind with self-absorption. Uncover your eyes, Thommy.” Mercutio takes a drink of wine, appearing to steel himself. “The role of the self-actualized man is to stay home during a pandemic.”
Thom feels assailed and says to himself, But I am a man of action, and then shifts nervously in his chair, unaware of how the sourness of his expression is betraying his lame attempt to hide his true feelings.
“Minchia!” Mercutio blurts, too irked to realize that he has changed tongues. “I don’t give a fuck.” Then he pauses and lowers his voice as if exhausted. “Do whatever you want.”
Thom looks around the apartment and realizes he never told his friend how he hates the childish diminutive. For the first time, he wonders why he never was nor ever could be a Thommy. In an effort to calm his quickening pulse without digging out another little white pill, he breathes deeply, trying to escape his head. He spots Mercutio’s collection of mugs from the great cities of Europe, each attached to memories Mercutio has shared with him. Most of the tales cast him as the hero in some sort of romantic conquest or rare physical feat, such as the time he slayed a bull in Seville after only a week’s crash course in bullfighting before conquering the most beautiful woman he’d ever set eyes on.
The stark contrast between the Mercutio who was his first friend in Sweden and the Mercutio who sits before him verges on the comical. The new self-actualized version of Mercutio describes copulation with an air of disdain that sounds as if he was some Buddhist zealot who realized that all yearnings of the flesh are simply a distortion of the “I” looking out at what most people mistake for reality.
“I have climbed the ladder of self-actualization,” he says triumphantly, as if reading Thom’s mind, “and have no time for such trivial things!” He points to the street with his fork and says, “Out there it’s a matter of death…and life.” Just then he sneezes into the crook of his arm.
Shuddering, Thom fumbles for his pills.
* * *
Once the plates with vestiges of tiramisu have been cleared, Mercutio turns back from the sink. “Hey, I told you not to come here, Thommy,” he says, searching for Thom’s eyes. “I tested positive.”
Thom instantly breaks his gaze. Saying nothing, he walks over to the window. Delicate snowflakes flutter down on desolate concrete. He’s gliding through a puncture in time and finds himself gazing out the window of the Joint on that last night. The snow becomes a ghostly blizzard, and it feels like looking into the squall of eternity. Holding the receiver of the bar phone to his ear, he picks out the words “mother” and “dead” reverberating in his skull. He hears Mercutio saying softly over his shoulder, “Don’t worry, my friend. This is not the end.”