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.
Ten minutes later, Harriet still couldn’t get the tape to rewind or play. The picture remained stuck on the same moment in time. Frustrated, she clicked on the fast-forward arrow instead.
The screen hiccupped, breaking out a vertical jig of static. Then, it returned to the hallway, this time animated with barely perceptible changes. Shadows grew over the tile floor, darkening; the automatic nightlights kicked on. Harriet looked at the time in the corner of the screen. It was spinning wildly into the a.m. hours. The window at the far end of the hall brightened, a few doors opened and closed as residents hastened to the trash room and back to their apartments with unnatural speed. The day over the timestamp changed from Wednesday to Thursday. The date was tomorrow. Harriet leaned in, thinking her glasses were failing her. The date appeared to be correct. It made no sense, other than a possible malfunction with the camera system. There could be no other explanation, she decided.
Oblivious to Harriet’s misgivings, the picture kept running forward, showing things that according to its electronic brain hadn’t occurred yet.
A misshapen figure appeared in the hallway. It walked to the bulletin board and began to tear down all the notices in frantic chipmunk-like movements. Something about this woman—the stiffness in her knees, the teased fleece at the crown of her head—caused a queasy stir in Harriet’s gut.
She clicked on the pause button, staring at the screen. Her hand slid off the mouse, leaving a sheen of sweat. The frumpy chipmunk was none other than her. She recognized the brown polyester slacks, the beige compression socks peeking from under the too short hem, the yellow sweater crimped around the familiar hips. And there, a few feet away, Ethyl’s plum-dyed bangs peeked through the crack of her apartment door.
Jumping from the chair, Harriet paced the tiny office. She had no recollection of leaving her desk since she ate lunch. No, not true. She used the visitor’s bathroom at 5:00 p.m., not wanting to go all the way to the staff lounge. But that was the only time she had walked through that door. She was sure of it. The tape was wrong. The machine was obviously broken. How else would it be showing tomorrow’s date and time; showing things that hadn’t happened, couldn’t have happened, things that were entirely wrong? In fact, everything about it was wrong because, not only had Harriet not gone up to the second floor hallway and vandalized her own bulletin board, she had spent virtually all day at her desk, alternating between spider solitaire on her computer and conversations with her youngest daughter, the one who as a teenager used to leave soiled tampons in Harriet’s underwear drawer just to piss her off but now called her every time she so much as sneezed. No, she had not been in that hallway since 2016, when Robert Mesa unscrewed his clogged toilet and heaved it, along with its contents, from the second story window.
It couldn’t have been her on that video. She went back to the monitor.
It was her.
Huddled over a handful of crumpled papers. What was she doing? It had taken her days to compose those memos. When the news bloated with reports of new cases and death tolls, the staff had begun to ask questions. Tenants kept calling the office to report on neighbors returning from a cruise or from Florida. “These people shouldn’t be allowed back,” they urged, and the staff had agreed. Harriet had no choice but to appease their paranoia.
Creating the appearance of precautionary measures without saying anything that could be construed as culpability is an art. Harriet’s favorite formulation, the phrase that ended each of the thirteen notices she had sent out since the beginning of this charade, was: While isolated incidents are occasionally addressed, they are in contained areas which continue to be regularly attended to with everyone’s well-being at the forefront of our instituted procedures.
She had learned from the best. Harriet’s mother had been an old-school personal secretary to a big man in a big office. “People are suckers for words,” she used to tell little Harriet, sliding a lukewarm Hungry-Man tray in front of her. “At the end of the day, what they want to hear will always seem like the truth.” In those days, Harriet spent most of her time without either of her parents. She would go to sleep talking to Aliza—an imaginary sister. Aliza was Harriet’s doppelganger, only smarter and with better teeth. Years later, Harriet found her mother’s lessons useful, applying them to audits and reports that kept her employed with minimal distractions. She prided herself on arranging words into sentences that slipped between the overseers’ fingers like sand. Now and then, a righteous bureaucrat called her out on lack of substance but, for the most part, Harriet enjoyed a career of agreeable inertia. Her mother had been smart not to fill Harriet’s head with feminist notions that would have led to a life of frothing herself with visions, dreams of unattainable pursuits. It is best to temper your ambitions by recognizing your limitations. That conviction guided Harriet in her decisions to marry Stanley, to drop out of grad school, to choose the mix-and-match pieces of her wardrobe, which every Sunday Harriet laid out for the rest of the week. She could set a calendar by her dressing schedule.
With a clenched gut she looked up at the screen. The shot was paused on the still-life of future Harriet. There was no longer any doubt. Her mid-motion, frozen figure was dressed in the brown and yellow outfit that had been prepared for tomorrow. She checked the time and date again. Thursday, April 16, 11:22 a.m. She touched the screen of her phone, waking it. Wed., April 15, 9:01 p.m. Harriet could not deny the obvious—the woman in the video footage was indeed her. It was the kind of insanity that couldn’t be verbalized, not by one of her slippery sentences, and, she feared, not by anyone else’s account. She considered turning off the computer, unplugging it, going home to Stanley, telling him what she saw, or not. Instead, she would pack a bag to drive somewhere, anywhere, and hide amid the stamped artwork and pay-per-view of a midwestern highway hotel.
But the woman on the screen seemed disappointed. Had she no curiosity to know her own self?
Wiping her hands down the front of her shirt, Harriet took a hopeful breath. You can figure this out, Aliza’s voice spoke to her.
Finding the square with the main entrance to Golden Farms, Harriet enlarged it and clicked on the rewind arrow. The image careened back in time. Only now, it rewound from one point in the future to another, slightly less distant, point in the future. The impossibility of what she was witnessing was too much to consider, but there it was in front of her—the hours she had yet to live, the acts she had yet to commit. An acidic gurgle rose from Harriet’s innards, threatening to climb up her throat. She clamped her free hand over her mouth.
On the screen, the Harriet of tomorrow approached one of the bulletin boards. Between the neat rows of her typed memos, encouraging the people of Golden Farms to wash their hands and promising them timely and accurate information, was a thumbtacked scrap of paper. It had two jagged sentences in giant, handwritten letters. I have the Disease. Harriet knows. Followed by the signature. Marve Trebisky. Future Harriet first tore the note from the wall. She shredded it with her hands, stuffing the scraps into her pockets, and then started in on the memos. Pushing back from the desk, current Harriet closed her eyes, making sense of the scene. As long as no one knew the Disease reached their community, there would be no investigation. In a good year, they could easily lose five residents, and this had not been a good year.
In the present, an hour had passed. A sweaty and exhausted Harriet had viewed the same few minutes in all of the hallways. Each one showed her desecrating the evidence on the bulletin boards, a determined look pinching her face. Perhaps she didn’t need to run after all. There was only one way to find out. Harriet fast-forwarded.
An entire day reeled by at ten times the speed of its natural course. Whizzing in and out of the frame were tenants with shitting dogs, delivery people with heaping grocery bags, the mail carrier. Finally, Harriet saw her car pull into the lot on Friday morning. She pressed play and watched herself amble to the door, though not before dropping her keys and bending with visible discomfort to pick them up.
A white van marked Smart-TV-News pulled up alongside her, and a woman in heels and bright lipstick painted on her face mask ran after Harriet. It was the anchorwoman from one of the local news channels. What was her name? Harriet paused the video. She found the symbol for audio on the monitor, turned on the sound, and pressed play again.
“Ms. Weinberger, what can you tell us about the allegations of disinformation resulting in premature lifespan terminations, filed by Seniors Against Pandemic Denial?” The woman thrust a microphone at Harriet’s face.
“Are you saying you’ve never heard of SAPD?” The woman turned to the cameraman at her side, with a smile that said gotcha.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” future Harriet said, pulling her jacket tighter around herself, “but this is private property, and you are not welcome here.”
“Is that why you’re not wearing a mask? You think this is your personal domain?” the anchorwoman said. “But isn’t all of this funded by the government?” She turned to the camera again. “Eight bodies in eight days. The taxpayers want to know what you’ve been doing to protect the active and independent seniors of Silver Farms.”
“Golden,” Harriet said, walking away. “It’s Golden Farms.”
Harriett paused the video. It was 10:40 p.m., on Wednesday, April 15. She shut off the computer, took the master key from her drawer and made her way to the tenant activity lounge. The lights were off, and the room was covered in a thick layer of dust. It had been closed to the residents at the staff’s insistence since the outbreak. She locked the door behind her, taped a sheet of paper over its small window, pulled the blinds, and laid down on the vinyl couch. The remote was stuck between the cushions. Without her glasses, it took Harriet a minute to find the power button. She turned on the TV. Deliver Us From Cleveland was in the middle of a scene that depicted two women from opposite economic ends of the same neighborhood, fighting over a shopping cart at a local grocery store.
Who even goes shopping anymore? Aliza said, settling next to Harriet.
Harriet believed she would take a break. That, any minute now, she would get in her car and start driving, keep driving without looking back. But, by the end of the show, the thought seemed too ambitious.
JACQUELINE FELDMAN works in non-profit management and serves as Board Programming Committee Chair of Literary Cleveland, a literary arts organization serving writers and readers in Northeast Ohio and beyond. She holds an MA in English from Cleveland State University. Having moved to the U.S. from Ukraine as a child, Jacqueline often touches on themes of immigration and estrangement in her writing. Currently, she is working on short fiction and seeking representation for her debut novel, "Ten Days Until Tomorrow." You can find her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JFeldmanAuthor.
Artwork by Novel Noctule team.