On Wednesday of the third week of the fake pandemic, Harriet Weinberger, property manager extraordinaire, discovered her future self.
Golden Farms: A Community for Active Seniors Who Value Privacy, Security, and Independence, was equipped with a camera surveillance system. It wasn’t there to spy on the residents or the Staff—although, who could resist seeing Mr. Kaplanovsky ring Mrs. Foster’s doorbell and open his robe as she yanked him inside? The surveillance system was there to ensure their safety. This, although in its decades of housing suburban retirees, the worst crime Golden Farms had suffered was the vehicular homicide of a maple sapling after a boozy Easter luncheon.
Receiving a complaint from Ethyl Morris in 215 about strange noises in the hallway, Harriet sat herself at the computer monitor. It was late and calling someone in maintenance to come back would be admitting that, (1) she had no idea how to use the camera system, and (2) she was still in the office at 8:17 p.m., when there was no reason for her to be there other than to avoid going home to Stanley. Everyone else had left hours ago, claiming they had children to homeschool or parents to shop for, or some other such shit that had become the norm thanks to the bleeding heart idiots whipping up global paranoia over a common cold.
Half of her staff had stopped showing up at all, citing articles with colorful charts which depicted the dangers of invisible exposure and asymptomatic transmission. Traitors, the lot of them! Taking the first chance they had to get paid for doing nothing. At their best, they shammed days of apartment rentals, budget reports, and minor repairs. Perhaps answered the phones. Working from home, they wouldn’t do even that little. Harriett knew what “working from home” meant. The new season of Deliver Us From Cleveland was streaming on Popshow, and she wasn’t a stranger to pleasuring herself with hour after hour of screen voyeurism to a fictional upper-middle-class family falling apart against the backdrop of familiar streets. But, leveraging a fictional virus to watch television was a despicable maneuver.
Harriet touched the keyboard with a tentative finger and, to her surprise, the monitor came to life. A grid of sixteen squares, four down and four across, showed each hallway of the building. Choosing one of the squares at random, she dragged the cursor to it and clicked. The hallway expanded, filling the screen, stretching Harriet’s mouth into a pleased O. A yellow line appeared at the bottom, arrows pointing in opposite directions.
Just like playing a DVD. She’d always suspected the staff made things seem more complicated than they were. Taking webinars to learn new software modules on management, going to presentations on senior mental health, hosting meetings for community partners to discuss new paradigms for service delivery. All to accrue points. To be visible. To squeeze raises out of her year after year.
There was the small pleasure of calling them into her office, one by one, and sliding the piece of paper across her desk with their new salary amount. The same shitty three percent every damn year, but the way they carried on with the “thank-you’s” and the “you can count on me’s”, sometimes she wondered if they were too stupid to know the increase was built into the budget by the Feds. “You can give them raises, or you can send the money back,” the regional director told her once. “But then you have to complete Form 3874.66.” The form was seven pages of Federesque run-on sentences. Raises it was.
Bringing the cursor to the right-facing arrow, Harriet clicked again. The hallway came to life with a subtle change in lighting. A box appeared at the top of the screen, indicating the hallway: Flr. 1 West, and the date and time: April 15,2020, 8:20 p.m. Harriet glanced at her watch. The time matched what was on the screen. She was looking at the first floor of the west wing hallway in real time, where the only movement was the gentle sway of the window blinds. “I got you now, motherfucker,” she said, clutching the mouse tighter.
After a few attempts, Harriet clicked on the box marked Flr. 2 North. It looked identical to the hallway in the west building. The same empty quietude. Whatever Ethyl heard had probably come from her neighbor's TV. Still, Harriet prided herself on being thorough, and now that she had figured out how to manipulate the cameras, she was intrigued by the possibilities. Clicking on the arrow, she waited for the tape to rewind. But nothing changed. The minutes and seconds stood still on the screen. She clicked again and again, each time with the same results. The hallway stood frozen at 8:26 p.m. Frustrated, Harriet pushed away from the computer. It really was like her goddamned DVD player. She was ready to give up and call maintenance when there was a knock on the office door.
Ethyl’s face, framed by the fringe of her plum-colored wig, appeared in the glass. “What are you still doing here?” she yelled through the door, taking a hearty drag of her cigarette.
“Jesus.” Harriet climbed out of her chair. “Ethyl, there’s no smoking here.” She opened the door. “That’s grounds for eviction.”
“That’s why I came down here.” Ethyl kept puffing away. “I looked at my e-TarotReader and guess what? There’ll be no evictions during the Disease.” She blew smoke into Harriet’s face and, for a split second, Harriet wondered if, along with the carcinogen cloud, she had also inhaled invisible viral particles.
“I’m having one for Harry.” Ethyl took another drag. “He’d still be here if not for you. Those letters you sent, threatening to throw us out if he didn’t quit...” She flicked ash across the threshold. “Thirty days, ten days, three days. That’s what killed him.”
Harriet took a step forward. Ethyl’s garbage was the last thing she needed right now. She put on her kind face. “You know, smoking causes cancer.”
“Maybe,” Ethyl said, “but meanness can also kill a person.”
“The social worker is taking calls from home.” Harriet let go of the door, hoping that would send a message but instead, Ethyl jammed it open with her pump-heeled mule.
“Marve from apartment 316 is dead,” she said, smiling around the cigarette.
The first inkling of trouble prickled at Harriet. “Very sad news,” she said.
“And Rose from 121.”
“These things tend to happen in waves.”
“The Department of Disease has been making calls, asking questions,” Ethyl said, inserting a clawed finger under the edge of her wig for a quick scratch. “It seems there may have been more residents taken by the Disease.”
“Old people die,” Harriet said, “it’s the natural course of life.”
Ethyl pulled her foot out of the doorway. “If you say so.” The door began to swing closed as Ethyl shuffled for the elevator. Before disappearing around the corner, she turned and hissed, “People also die from not knowing how to live anymore. In the end, everyone gets what they deserve, and you’ve had it coming longer than most.”
Back in front of the computer, Harriet shrugged off the unpleasant exchange. Even if those residents had died from the Disease, no one could ever prove that. Ethyl was just trying to get under Harriet’s skin. The nasty old bat.
Harriet had always hated old people, more so now that she was getting old herself. The way they grew hair in places where it shouldn’t grow and had none in other places where it should be abundant. The stories they told with no beginning and no end. Snippets about a grandchild’s accomplishments or lists of ill-timed maladies haphazardly strung together by cruises and weddings. The tedium of the inevitable need to share.
What made it worse was Stanley’s recent likeness to the residents. When Stanley and Harriet had met, she was working on her finance degree and he was climbing through the ranks of academia. Upon graduation, Harriet planned to move to New York and work for an investment bank. But Stanley was older, more agile, better connected, and ultimately the more likely to succeed. So, she took a job in housing, had a couple of kids, and thirty years later, drove Stanley to the hospital to have a tumor removed from his brain.
After the surgery, the staff had come over with a pork and noodle casserole—Harriet let them have small personal moments like that one and like the annual holiday party. She’d heard from her neighbor who worked at a prison that they found a correlation between institutional relationships and workplace productivity. When the staff left, Harriet spoon-fed the casserole to Stanley, telling him the meat was turkey from the kosher butcher. The doctor said Stanley made a full recovery but, since she returned to work, he called her to report on each of his successes and failures, be they dusting the furniture, discovering an old photo album in the basement, or having a bowel movement.