A storm like this is unheard of at Kilstonia during the dry Oregon summer. Strange to see the pounding rain; only this morning, the baked cloudless sky had set off in stark shadows a beaver brazenly gorging himself on the willow tree on the island. Vera’s willow tree. She jumped out of bed, 81 years and recent foot surgery at once forgotten, grabbed her .22, unlatched the lock to the balcony, paused a brief instant to avoid spooking the critter, and edged the door cautiously open. Resting the gun on the railing to avoid any unwanted trembling, she closed an eye to aim carefully, mumbled “I got you, you little bastard,” and shot him to doll rags, one more witness to her excellent aim.

While she was at it, she picked off a couple of passing nutria, an exotic invasive species with no business in these parts. The beaver may have a bit more local cred as the state animal, but he should have thought more about the responsibilities which accompany that honor before sinking those blunt teeth into her willow tree. Blasting those animals away filled her with peace. Vera already has enough to bear with the geese blanketing the shore of her lake with shit, the birds pecking at her corn, and the deer invading her garden every time she forgets to latch the gate. What a glorious morning.

That happiness was shattered when Vera remembered that the bridge was being repaired, and leaving the animals there to gaze at the sky might mean an unbearable stench in a few days, because it’s hard to guarantee the prompt services of a vulture or a hawk. Normally she would have asked Steve to collect the inert animals, but her husband was still inert himself, and she decided that, in the end, it would be less trouble to take care of it herself than to spend all day begging him to. Anyway, she knew very well it wouldn’t take long: she gathered her gray hair in a ponytail, grabbed the boat, rowed the thirty feet needed to reach the island, seized the beasts by their necks and, once back on terra firma, tossed them into the woods to be eaten by a fox, a lynx, a cougar or any other carnivore that should take a liking to these nasty creatures.

When she got back to the house, its 10,000 square feet imposing even amidst the natural splendor stretching out in every direction, Steve was impatiently waiting to go on their daily morning stroll to pick up the mail, on many days their only lifeline to civilization. When he heard about Vera’s spree, though, he took an unusual step: in case they crossed paths with any hungry animals lured by the sweet stench of his wife’s victims, he fetched the hunting knife that usually only accompanied him on late night walks.

As they returned home under the clear blue sky, Vera felt a sudden sharp pain in her temples and told Steve that a storm was brewing, but he sternly disabused her of that misconception with that universal reflex of husbands that always drove her to desperation. Fine, let him think whatever he wants, time will tell. She can’t be touched by negativity, because pacing the paths of those 40 acres that are her corner of the earth cures her of all ills: she has always dreamed of having her own forest, and now she has much more than that at Kilstonia.

Like every morning, the couple did the New York Times crossword puzzle, side by side, the effects of the coffee mingling with the rush from solving the trickiest clues. Vera was surprised that Lidia the spider was not in the kitchen, but she didn’t take it as a bad omen at the time. What did begin to arouse her suspicions was that, in all the hours and hours she spent tending the garden, she didn’t spot a single arachnid among the daisies, the roses, the delphiniums, the achillea, the lilies, the hollyhocks, or the columbines. And this despite painstakingly searching for them because, in the tradition of the Czech community of Baltimore where she grew up (still the foundation of her vision of the world seven decades later), spiders bring good luck.

This mysterious absence sent a chill down her spine, intensified by the dark, bruised clouds lurking in the west that merged with the tops of the dozens of pine trees encircling the house. She remedied this by wrapping herself in her favorite sweatshirt, which reads “My body is a temple (ancient and crumbling).” She continued busying herself with her wonderful flowers, where today not one bee was buzzing, playfully, to bathe itself in nectar… “Ježíš Marjá,” she exclaimed. She had been so fixated on spiders that she had overlooked the complete disappearance of insects. She listened intently: there was no bird song either. She shook her head. Ježíš Marjá, Ježíš Marjá. When she swore, the words always came out in Czech.

Curiosity outweighed any real concern and, since there was nothing to disrupt her habits, at four o’clock in the afternoon she sat down in the sunroom with her book — she was currently immersed in the mammoth History of the Persian Empire — a white wine and soda — to help her relax — and a bowl of potato chips, such a treat that she broke them into progressively smaller and smaller pieces to stretch them across time — something her brother taught her as a child.

That’s when the storm arrived suddenly, a violent barrage of hail assaulting the skylights with such force that Vera felt dazed, transfixed for several long moments before staggering to her room to take her second nap of that strangely dark day at the end of June.

Now, the couple of retired aerospace engineers is quietly cooking dinner, but the storm and Vera’s headache rage unabated. So powerful is Steve’s sweet tooth that Vera expresses love through fine pastry, but today she just wants to do something quick and dirty, so she can get to bed and sleep all night long. Steve’s warm voice and the meticulous narrative style he learned as an only child in a bookish Jewish environment massage Vera’s aching temples. Her husband recounts his day and laments lacking time to do everything he wanted: he played the piano for a while in the music room but not the violin, he played chess online but didn’t read, he did a few push-ups and weights in the attic but no abs, he grumbled at length while reading the President’s latest tweets and jotted a couple of notes but didn’t add a single paragraph to his book Feeling Our Universe. Same old same old.

The coronavirus has barely tickled them. There have been a few changes, of course: they can’t receive visits from their children and grandchildren, or hold the music camp they’ve been hosting for years, or attend the monthly Eugene Atheist luncheons, or play string quartets, or meet with Cottage Grove Community United, the group they founded to upend the area status quo, already triumphant in shutting down the infamous “fascist knife shop” (two of the owners having been recently convicted of hurling rocks through the windows of a synagogue). They miss the energy of group creativity, activism, and family, but the routine, the essence, is still intact.

Vera rubs her temples, and Steve recommends that she take an aspirin and heads to the first floor to fetch it. Five years younger than his wife, he is concerned about her health and takes zealous care of her, especially now: Vera has already made it through six or seven bouts of pneumonia, so the virus would strike her mercilessly. Steve does all the shopping so that Vera needn’t come into contact with people at the supermarket, but he’s not too worried about Laura, the woman who cleans the house every week, or Jake, the bipolar gardener who lives illegally in the cabin next to the barn, the rusting hulks of his cars covering the lawn, and whom they’ve been politely inviting to vacate the premises for some time without effect. After all, Vera has been practising social distancing all her life — thank God for her Central European origins — and she still has excellent hearing, so she doesn’t need to get too close to anyone.

The clouds cling to the treetops of Kilstonia and drape the entire sweep of the heavens without diluting their fury, and by 7 PM, an unusual greyish darkness has already fallen almost two hours before sunset. The first blackout hits when Steve is descending in the elevator, aspirin bottle in hand, but it doesn’t last long and he escapes the funereal claustrophobia within a few minutes. Neither of them is scared, because they live with the simple conviction that fear is not a useful recourse.

For dinner, they have spaghetti in a thick sauce overflowing with meatballs. No calorie counting or fad diets here — the blood of generations of butchers run in Vera’s veins, after all — but they eat so gracefully that neither of them allows a single drop to escape onto the spotless white tablecloth, still immaculate and unwashed after hundreds of meals. Under the flickering chandelier, Steve tells her how salt was a monopoly of the Spanish royal family from the Middle Ages until 1869, prices tyrannically raised when unforeseen expenses arose, such as a war or the fancy for one more palace. Vera has been intentionally undersalting her cooking for decades because Steve never asks her to pass the shaker without unearthing another tale from the annals of salt, apparently endless, of which she never tires.

In the same week in August 1966, Steve discovered and named the comet Kilston and gave a ride to a funny, intelligent blonde girl whose car had broken down in the Berkeley hills and would become his wife ten years later, after a decade-long soap opera involving irresolute sisters, the Summer of Love, and three children thrown in. The comet will not return for another 180,000 years, and his love for Vera would not repeat any sooner.

For dessert, they have toast with Plum Impeachment Jam from the 2017 summer harvest, lacking flavor for Steve but leaving Vera content. That’s when the generator explodes.

“It seems like the Donald isn’t a fan of his jam,” declares Vera, who never loses her cool, but they immediately get into an argument about whose turn it was to fill the propane tank — yours, no, yours, no, yours, yours.

Well, we’re not going to fix this tonight: Steve scrounges around for some candles, clearly with no intention of going to bed, but Vera is not up for any nonsense — there is a storm pounding outside and inside her skull — so she climbs step by step by step up the majestic double stairway, supporting herself with her cane and the bannister (when was the last time she dispensed with the elevator?). Before she gets into bed, she gives herself a quick sponge bath and goes out on the terrace to admire the vast moonless night from the balcony: what extraordinary beauty, that absolute darkness that does not exist in the city, and that she had never known until moving to the kingdom of Kilstonia.

She sleeps peacefully and, at around one in the morning, in the midst of that dream where she shoots zombies from the balcony as they lurch towards the house, their faces uncovered, their coughing virulent, their hands clutching “Trump 2020” signs, she is awoken by frenzied footsteps ringing on the metal spiral staircase by her window. She peers out and sees Jake, waving a shotgun with crazed blue eyes popping out of their sockets, in what looks like another one of his psychotic breaks. Not again… She calmly draws the curtain, opens the door to the hall and proclaims with that authoritative echo that is a gift of grandiose architecture: “Steve! Go out to the east wing and see what the hell is wrong with Jake.”

She tries to get back to sleep, because she has a couple of zombies left to deal with, but the loud notes of the piano reverberating through the floor ensure that she can’t sleep a wink. What a drag. Steve clearly didn’t pay any attention to her at all. She grabs her cane and heads downstair — step, step, step — engulfed in inky blackness illuminated sporadically by relentless flashes of lightning. She reaches the bottom with a stumble and raises her cane up high so the grandiloquent excoriation that Steve is about to receive for not dealing with Jake will be more theatrical. She opens the door to the music room and the piano stops playing. She tells herself that it must be the ghost of the music camp that will never happen this year, and she lets out one of those guffaws which only one’s own unsurpassed wit can elicit, and it rumbles through the walls of the mansion and mingles with the thunder.

But Vera only believes in one ghost, that of her mother, who haunts her from the morning, when she carefully arranges everything in its proper place, through the afternoon, every time she finishes a task with iron perfection, to the evening, when she performs her washing ritual (hands, face, and feet) before going to bed.

When she closes the door to the music room, she hears Paganini clattering from the radio in the dining room, and Vera is led there by blows of her cane and lightning. In the brief pallid clarity of a flash, Vera sees a red gush that has ravished the cleanliness of the tablecloth and fleeting legs dragged across the floor. Fear grips her for the first time in decades: she has not known terror since fleeing her mother’s wooden spoon after revealing her engagement to her first husband.

She doesn’t know how to react. She flicks the nearest light switch, as if to illuminate her house and her mind, both immersed in darkness, in the nightmare of Steve’s blood on the tablecloth, of his feet now disappearing from her view through the glass door. Nothing. Should she climb stair by stair by stair to retrieve the .22 from her room? How could she have left it upstairs? What a blunder. But there’s no time to go back for it: she could lose Steve. A sudden Socratic epiphany blazes, and she remembers the wild hemlock she’s been trying to dispose of for ages, but which she subconsciously has always known she’d eventually resort to.

She creeps outside stealthily. The sky roars, the rain drums down ceaselessly, the branches of the garden mosaic writhe and turn to snakes, the raven Cicero croaks his long-winded discourses without respite, the wind chimes abandon their delicacy and howl with metallic fury, Vera tears the hemlock out with her gloved left hand and ponders how to administer the poison. Of all the possibilities, her favourite is undoubtedly shoving the herbs up Jake’s ass, but she realizes the logistics may prove tricky — although, well, as a child she threw a boy twice her size into a hole when necessary to defend her brother: no doubt she’ll manage to make it work now. She’ll have to improvise based on what she’s given. That bastard Jake, clinging to them like a limpet, unabashedly calling himself one of the family — pah, as if they didn’t already have family to spare with five children and seven grandchildren — with his gun collection filling his illegal hut, worse than a thousand hungry beavers or nutria. She, like the police, had believed him when he claimed his wife woke up in the middle of the night and shot herself, but now she is filled with doubt. She remembers the crimson stain, the slack feet bouncing, the protruding eyeballs of a maniac with coronavirus (I mean, he never wears a mask, this guy). Hemlock. Up the ass.

Vera, limping in sandals and socks and a white nightgown, her hair disheveled, spots movement in the pond, like a struggle, and advances quickly under the pitiless rain, taking advantage of the fact that the noise of her footsteps is swallowed by Cicero’s incessant harangue and the hooting of the owl from the windowless barn. The shadowy figures of the two men are battling for their lives amidst the water lilies, and Vera remembers Baba Sklutskem, draped in muck and algae, that club-wielding water spirit lurking in the depths of lakes to drag men to their death, who appears with her mother’s face, and the vision makes her recoil and turn around. Steve calls out Vera’s name.

Her Steve, her beloved Steve, the apple of her eye! She will sniff his tie-dye shirts every day, erect a shrine in his honor in the geographical centre of Kilstonia adorned with orchids and marshmallows and chess pieces, cry every time she sees the North Star shining in the sky. Ježíš Marjá, Vera, save your husband, your mother is long dead and lives only in your daily routines, and Baba Sklutskem exists only in folklore and certainly isn’t welcome in Kilstonia. Vera tosses away her cane and runs with an agility she’d thought long-gone; she thinks of the red blood on the tablecloth, of the dragged feet…

Vera, Vera! Steve keeps yelling, and the yells fill her with such fury that she crushes the hemlock into juice. When she arrives at the shore, panting, Steve turns casually to her and informs her with the greatest tranquillity in the world that Vera’s shrieking about Jake startled him so much that he had soaked the tablecloth in stewed rhubarb, that he was forced to eat the entire bowl so it wouldn’t spoil with the fridge off after the generator explosion, hehe, some people might think it was too sweet to eat plain, but the final bite hadn’t lost any of the relish of the first bite, fancy that, an entire bowl, well, until she’d made him upend it! That Jake was hysterical and lost, and that Steve had to soothe him by explaining the magical essence of our gentle universe, how everything is connected and how for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. That Jake suffered a real shock when he got wind of this, and Steve had to drag him into the lake so the icy water would bring him back to his senses, because there was no other way to revive him, look how calm he is now, our dear Jake. That the two of them are tangled up in the pedicels of the water lilies, though in no danger, but the hunting knife has sunk to the bottom of the lake, so a pair of pruning shears would really come in handy.

Because of her unwonted exertion, Vera’s hips, left knee, right big toe, and upper eyelashes hurt, and she is drenched with rain and foaming rage. Now she would love to use the hemlock on Steve instead, via the same orifice, but she can’t, not for lack of enthusiasm, but because it has all disintegrated along the way. Vera, who had avoided the pinch of fear for more than sixty years, peers down on the miserable duo crouching damply among the plants and melts back into the storm, illuminated by a continuous explosion of lightning bolts: Ask Baba Sklutskem to help you out, or perhaps I could cut off the stalks from the upper balcony with my .22, but I can’t vouch for my aim at night, so maybe you lovebirds had better manage on your own, and after you’ve gotten out, the two of you can see to it that the tablecloth is sparkling by the time I’m up for breakfast, because there’s no place for stains in Kilstonia. And she departs screaming an endless flurry of Ježíš Marjás at the top of her lungs.


More tales of the pandemic based on real stories at
Love in the Time of Coronavirus,
by Patricia Martín Rivas.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus


Strawberry and cream tarts, lemon bundt cake, artisan tiramisu, blueberry muffins, Dutch apple pie, chocolate eclairs, cherry cobbler, cinnamon rolls, and bread, bread, and more bread. All expired, but it’s better than nothing.

Each time he readies this cornucopia for his people, it fills him with excitement, but ever since the chase and the $130 fine a few months ago, there is always the nagging concern that maybe this time will be another disaster.

He has just left the only supermarket that responded to his pleas the Albertsons in South El Paso from which he has been taking a daily cartful for the past five years and he realizes he is already feeling unusually tense. Will they let him cross? He arranges the surplus and expired products with the restraint and methodical efficiency of someone who knows exactly what he’s doing. It’s already become rote: he arrives every day at the loading and unloading zone, passes through to the bakery and pastry section, collects everything his compatriots don’t want, to be taken to those who can’t choose what they want, puts it in the cart, and distributes it among the coolers he always carries in the trunk.

Calm down, calm down, he sips water, exhales, gets in his pick-up truck, murmurs a rapid prayer. His nerves are on edge after three border crossings in a single day last week. Normally things aren’t so hectic, but it appears that, in these times, perishable goods have lost their attraction for American shoppers, and they pile up, pile up, pile up and usually land in the dumpster.

He buries his anxiety, starts the engine, and heads for the border, temporarily imbued with the tranquillity of hope and faith. That journey of barely five minutes is filled with the faces he will hopefully see today. First appears little Maria Fernanda from the orphanage, whose parents were murdered a couple of months back, but is always full of affection, seeking to be hugged, embraced, cradled. Then he decides he will leave some bread at Angélica’s house, partially repaired after another rampage of her teenage son, who sniffed glue as a kid, and then went on to marijuana and then cocaine and then meth. Wresting his thoughts away, the visage of Rahui comes to him, Rahui, who himself lives precariously in the Tarahumara settlement, is always eager to help unload the pick-up truck and distribute food to his neighbors. Just before he arrives, there flashes into his mind an image of that wryly upbeat woman everyone calls La Perrita, who loves chocolate and dirty jokes and who was thrown by her children into the teeming chaos of the overcrowded psychiatric hospital after she fell on the train tracks and lost both legs and an arm. Merely thinking about them fills him with warmth: the loneliness of a childless divorce vanishes like smoke when he arrives in Juarez, when he joins his makeshift Mexican family. He sees them every week, they kiss and hug (nowadays much less), play, pray, sing, laugh and even celebrate together at Christmas and Easter. God willing he will be able to get across. God willing.

Agents on both sides of the border have him firmly in their sights. While returning to the U.S., despite a digital trail of his countless arrivals and departures, is usually a breeze (because it’s his own country, and he has the SENTRI pass for trusted travelers), Mexico often poses problems. As he approaches customs, Jeff plans how to proceed. There are five entry points at the border — he knows them all too well, after 23 years of experience. To lessen suspicion, Jeff tries to repeat as infrequently as possible, keeping a running mental record of which is due. Although controls are less comprehensive in this direction, Jeff is often accused by officers of carrying too much food. Through painstaking trial and error, he has determined what is likely to be considered an acceptable amount — two four-foot containers per trip, three at the most — but today they may say even that’s too much. Then he will have to go back and wait for another day and try to distribute the food to the homeless people he finds in El Paso or to his neighbors, because food banks only accept donations of non-perishable food. As a last resort, Jeff will eat what he can himself before it goes bad, but what the supermarket discards is already on its last legs, and not a single eclair more can be crammed into the freezer. What can he do: sometimes the trash is an inevitable fate, and his thoughts always turn to his children whenever he’s forced to toss the spoiled food.

He’s approaching that high wall that’s been steadily growing since 1819, and Jeff can’t stop sweating. Come on, you’ve been doing this for years and years. There are a couple of cars ahead of him. No comparison to what it’s usually like; the border closed on March 21, and only those considered essential can pass. He’s essential, in theory, but they can refuse him on any pretext.

If they don’t let him through, he won’t try his luck at another checkpoint. He would hate to repeat the experience of last year’s pursuit and ticket, when he was carrying four coolers loaded with pastries and the agents wouldn’t let him cross, and he switched to another entrance and initially managed to get through, but the first guards had tipped them off, and he was commanded to stop, and he started singing loudly to feign incomprehension, and they chased him down with a truck, and they dumped him back in the United States and screamed at him, and he had to pay a fine of $135 to boot. And 2300 pesos goes a long way on the other side. No, if they don’t let him pass, he’s not going to gamble again. Now he treads carefully: better to live to fight another day, even if he has to throw away precious expired food. 

The border gets closer, closer, and Jeff tenses his shoulders, squeezes the steering wheel with his hands, prays and prays that they don’t give him any trouble, turns down the K-LOVE music that always accompanies him, fits the yellow cap over his gray hair, adjusts the tiger-print mask (better to leave it on, right?), readies his passport, and hands it to the officer with gloves and caution and his blue eyes glowing with supplication and prayers crouched at the corners of his lips. Will he manage to get across? 

In general, he knows the weak points and proper approach for each of the border patrol officers, who don’t give a damn about the starving people in their country or the children wasting away in orphanages. However, the agent he’s drawn today, Jorge Lopez, always keeps him guessing, because depending on what side of the bed he woke up on, he sometimes displays compassion, sometimes blazes with fury; and he’s just as likely to dutifully process the official food transportation tax as he is to cough with the self-importance of petty authority to elicit a bribe.

Jeff forces his eyes into a smile and says good morning, how are you, sir, thank you very much. To avoid any sign of weakness or concern about his lengthy entry record, he concentrates on mentally plotting his course for the day. Before starting the deliveries, he will head to kilometer 27 to buy meat, milk, eggs, and fruit at the El Roble supermarket. The cash, cobbled together from various donors as well as a sizable portion of the profits Jeff makes from his own eBay store, provides for a decent haul of fresh food. On recent trips, he’s wandered bewildered through the richly-stocked supermarket aisles: piles, mountains of toilet paper gleam under the fluorescent glare, because this battered city can’t afford the luxury of descending on stores like locusts to hoard for a catastrophe. In these times, a full supermarket is synonymous with thousands of empty cupboards and refrigerators. In Ciudad Juarez, hunger and drugs kill many more people than any damn virus.

Officer Lopez addresses him as if they haven’t faced each other two hundred and forty-two times previously, and Jeff responds with restrained friendliness, and Officer Lopez asks if he has anything to declare, and Jeff mentions the three coolers full of bread and pastry, and Officer Lopez peers at him with puzzlement and examines the vehicle with eyes filled with the eternal suspicion of one who works every day in the uncertainty of discerning good from evil.

Suddenly, this inspection, now so routine, seems to him like an oasis of calm, and he is flooded with a sense of tranquility. Let God’s will be done. What truly worries Jeff is that the lords of this jungle will exploit the situation to lure in and conscript the most desperate for the skirmishes of their lethal trade. In April, obligatory social distancing was imposed in Mexico and more than 70 percent of the large factories in Juarez closed. Now many are on the streets and dying of hunger: staying home is not a choice, but a privilege.

On top of everything, this virus has the cartels pissed off, because most of the ingredients for making drugs come from China and the ban on shipping goods from the Asian behemoth is, in this land, a ban on getting rich. Incensed. The closed borders are decimating the drug routes. Downright infuriated. A few weeks ago, five gringos were executed, including a school teacher Jeff had been working with.

But Jeff doesn’t fear these thugs, and he drives around quietly in his pick-up truck, with his Christian music and “You have a friend in Jesus” on the license plate, telling himself, repeating to himself, that the bad guys may not fear him, but they fear God. At sixty-seven years old, maybe what he should really fear is the virus, high-risk group and so mobile, but what terrifies him much more is that his people may not have anything to put on their plates.

Agent Lopez regards Jeff with apathy: it seems that today it will be the official tax; two, three hundred pesos per cooler, he will have to pay. Times aren’t so hard now really: the health crisis doesn’t stop civil servants from drawing their salary, so Jeff is only forced to cough up a bribe a third of the times he crosses the border. The situation always gets worse after federal elections, when every departing president has the nasty habit of emptying the state coffers and leaving the customs agents trembling. Since they won’t get paid anything for three or four months, they forget to ask for the official paperwork to be filled out, and their mouths fill with absurd sums, knowing that the flow of gringos will feed their families when the state can’t. There’s still a year or so to go before the next election, so, putting aside morals, Jeff is essentially indifferent: he just declares what he’s carrying, and the cost of the bribe ends up equivalent to that of the tax only the pockets in which it ends up change, but that’s not his problem. He just wants to get to the other side.

He waits as the agent fills out forms, signs such and such document, pays for this, that, and the other, and finally crosses the border to his second home, that city forsaken by God and man without drinking water, without sanitation, without paved streets, and without hope and sighs with relief. Jeff is determined that he will not stop he will keep on making his three weekly trips in this pick-up truck that has only seen El Paso and Juarez and that already bears 300,000 miles and tarts and cake and tiramisu and muffins and pies and eclairs and cobblers and rolls and bread and experience.


More tales of the pandemic based on real stories at
Love in the Time of Coronavirus,
by Patricia Martín Rivas.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus


The neo-ancient emergence of the phrase “streaming mass” had launched her into delight tinged with relief. She has stoically resigned herself to renouncing her walks to the Dish, her jazzercise classes, her meandering bike rides, no matter how much she longs for them. All for the common good. And, well, she has a big backyard, where she can run, dance, or do flips on the trampoline if she wants. She never actually has, but why shouldn’t she?

Physical exercise is not, then, her main concern, but missing Sunday Mass is a harder pill to swallow. Now that is something unpardonable. She has given more than a chance to guided meditation videos on YouTube and theological chats over family dinner but, after two weeks devoid of the reverend’s velvet words, the pit in her stomach bores deeper every second. How is it possible to face these apocalyptic times without the spiritual peace of Sunday’s congregation?

That’s why just reading “streaming mass” on her church’s website in spite of the friction of its meaning, its almost paradoxical chronology had made her feel a little bit closer to heaven.

This Sunday, dressed to the nines, she’s set up to correct exams while she waits for the service to begin. She dialed in to the video call twenty-three minutes and fifty-seven seconds before the start of mass, when there was not yet another soul to be seen in this cyber-limbo, so she continues to wield her red pen, less focused than usual due to the angelic chime every time someone new joins.

Six minutes and fourteen seconds before the streaming mass, she puts the exams aside to be dealt with in a clearer-eyed moment and begins to focus on the images of the other devotees. There are dozens of them and, every time one speaks, her picture fills the screen and ruthlessly unveils all the secrets of her home, at a stroke transforming all the others into petty, unwitting domestic spies.

Although the longevity of the parishioners is hardly news to her, Caroline can’t help but be struck by the great host of pills in the foreground, of respirators in the background, of canes and walkers strewn about not judging, not judging, that would be a sin, but you have to admit it’s striking. She, who drags the average age down quite a few years, finds it almost sinful to peer into room after room of these old people, the poor devils, awash among their pillboxes, their orthopedic devices, their embroidered cushions, and their antediluvian photos.

Holy Mass begins; and it turns out that the seniors, for whom this first encounter with video-conferencing is a baptism by fire, are not at all acquainted with the concept of “muting the microphone”. The reverend’s words are incessantly and irrepressibly interrupted by, “I don’t know that man from Adam,” and “Heavens, how does this work?” and “Turn up the goddamn volume, Joseph, for Chrissake.” Images of the reverend are interspersed with ladies in their Sunday best shouting that they don’t understand, with half deaf gentlemen who don’t understand that they are shouting, with shouting grandchild after grandchild, not understanding what’s not to understand.

Bedlam and chaos. The blind leading the blind.

Caroline, all dolled up for this long-awaited moment, finds herself getting more and more distracted. She tries again and again to focus on the word of God praise to you, Jesus Christ but the situation is more hilarious than solemn. And exasperating. So funny, but so maddening, but so funny.

The reverend sighs, blesses, sighs, sighs.

A young man well, not so much young, as younger than the others materialized on the main screen as if descended from from the heavens and demonstrates on a sheet of paper the steps for muting the damn microphone, written in letters the size of a soft-boiled egg. Caroline sees the promised land beckon, but the blessed vision lasts but a few moments; the Methuselahs click, click, click, they try, click, click, click, but nothing, click, nothing, click, click, nothing, nothing, nothing.

Hell, now in streaming.

Caroline boils inside one must have the patience of Job… She bites her tongue, crosses herself, makes a perfunctory gesture of farewell and hangs up, closing her computer with restrained violence.

And her house is plunged suddenly into the deepest silence. And, there, in that sacred hush, there, there, hidden, there dwells her God.


More tales of the pandemic based on real stories at
Love in the Time of Coronavirus,
by Patricia Martín Rivas.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus


Tartaletas de fresa y nata, bizcocho de plátano, tiramisú artesanal, pastel de chocolate, tarta de zanahoria, magdalenas con glaseado de unicornio, corona de bizcocho de limón, dulces rellenos de cabello de ángel, rollos de canela y pan, pan y más pan. Todo caducado, pero algo es algo.

La emoción lo embarga siempre que prepara todos esos manjares para su gente, pero, desde que sucedió aquello de la persecución y la multa de ciento treinta y cinco dólares hace unos meses, a veces no puede evitar que lo invada la preocupación y pensar que quizás esta vez tampoco salga bien.

Acaba de salir del único supermercado que cedió a sus súplicas —ese Albertsons en el sur de El Paso del que suele sacar un carrito diario desde hace cinco años— y ya se nota especialmente tenso. ¿Lo dejarán pasar? Coloca los excedentes y los productos caducados con la parsimonia y la metodología de quien sabe lo que hace. Ya forma parte de su rutina: llega todos los días a la zona de carga y descarga, desde donde entra a la sección de panadería y pastelería, recopila todo lo que sus compatriotas no quieren para llevárselo a quienes no pueden elegir qué querer, lo mete en el carrito y lo reparte entre las neveras que siempre carga en el maletero.

Calma, calma, bebe agua, respira, entra en la camioneta, murmura una oración rapidita. Tiene los nervios de punta porque la semana pasada cruzó la frontera tres veces en un mismo día. Normalmente no hay tanto ajetreo, pero parece que últimamente los productos perecederos gozan de menos popularidad entre los compradores estadounidenses y se acumulan, se acumulan, se acumulan y suelen acabar en la basura.

Entierra la inquietud, arranca el motor y se dirige a la frontera empapado de la tranquilidad que arropan la esperanza y la fe. Ese trayecto de apenas cinco minutos se le llena de rostros: ojalá pueda verlos hoy. Primero se le aparece la carita de María Fernanda, a la que le mataron a los padres hace un par de meses y que siempre rezonga por el orfanato llenita de cariño y ansias de abrazos y besos y mimos. Después decide que le dejará algún pan a Angélica en casa, que ya está casi reparada después del último arrebato destructivo de su hijo adolescente, que se enganchó al pegamento de niño y luego se pasó a la marihuana y luego a la cocaína y luego al cristal. En seguida se le cruza la imagen de Rahui, que vive en la colonia tarahumara y que siempre quiere ayudar a descargar la camioneta y a repartir comida entre sus vecinos. Justo antes de llegar, le invade la mente el semblante de aquella mujer de humores desgastados a la que llaman Perrita, que adora el chocolate y los chistes verdes y a quien sus hijos abandonaron en el hospital psiquiátrico, donde habitan más de cien personas, después de que se cayera en la vía del tren y perdiera las piernas y un brazo. El simple hecho de pensar en ellos lo llena de calidez: la soledad de un divorcio sin hijos desaparece de un plumazo al llegar a Juárez, donde se reúne con su gente, a la que ve todas las semanas y se besan y abrazan (ahora mucho menos), juegan, rezan, cantan, ríen e incluso comen juntos en Navidad y en Semana Santa. Ojalá lo dejen cruzar. Ojalá, ojalá.

Los agentes de ambos lados de la frontera lo tienen muy visto. Mientras que el regreso a Estados Unidos, con un registro digital de todas sus entradas y salidas, siempre es pan comido (tanto por tratarse de su propio país como por disponer del pase SENTRI para cruzar a sus anchas), México, sin embargo, suele poner problemas. Por eso, en cuanto se va acercando a la aduana, Jeff planifica cómo actuar. Hay cinco puntos de entrada en la frontera —los conoce de sobra: empezó sus andaduras en 1997—, así que, para no despertar tantas sospechas, lleva la cuenta de cabeza de por cuál le toca cruzar cada vez. Aunque México dispone de menos controles de seguridad, a menudo los guardias tachan a Jeff de llevar demasiada comida. Ya tiene calculado cuánto se considera una cantidad aceptable —dos contenedores de un metro y medio de largo por trayecto, tres a lo sumo—, pero quizás hoy lo acusen de ir con más de la cuenta. Entonces tendrá que regresar y esperar a otro día e intentar distribuir la comida entre la gente sin hogar que encuentre por El Paso o entre sus vecinos, porque los bancos de alimentos solo aceptan donaciones de comida imperecedera. Como último recurso, Jeff picoteará un poco de esto y un poco de aquello antes de que se estropee, pero lo que le sobra al supermercado ya está en las últimas y a él no le cabe más pan en el congelador. Qué remedio: a veces resulta inevitable tirarlo y sus pensamiento siempre se visten de sus niños cada vez que se ve obligado a deshacerse de la comida estropeada.

Se va acercando a aquel alto muro que crece sin parar desde 1819 y Jeff no puede controlar el sudor. Venga, que llevas años y años haciendo esto. Hay un par de coches delante. Nada comparado con como suele ser: la frontera cerró el veintiuno de marzo y solo pasa a quien se le considera esencial. Él lo es, pero lo pueden rechazar por cualquier pretexto.

Si no lo dejan pasar, no va a intentarlo por otro punto de control. Odiaría vivir de nuevo aquello de la persecución y la multa del año pasado, cuando llevaba cuatro neveras cargaditas de repostería y los agentes no lo permitieron cruzar y probó por otra entrada y pasó, pero los primeros guardias dieron el chivatazo y los segundos le pidieron que parara y él se puso a cantar a voz en grito para hacer como que no se enteraba de nada y lo persiguieron con un camión y lo devolvieron a Estados Unidos y lo regañaron de lo lindo y tuvo que pagar ciento treinta y cinco dólares por la bromita. Y dos mil trescientos pesos dan para mucho al otro lado. No, si no lo dejan pasar, no se la va a jugar otra vez. Ahora se anda con pies de plomo: mejor volver otro día, aunque tenga que tirar aquella valiosa comida caducada.

Se acerca, se acerca la frontera, y Jeff tensa los hombros, aprieta el volante con las manos, reza y reza por que no le pongan problemas, silencia la música K-LOVE que siempre lo acompaña, se cala bien la gorra amarilla en la cabeza cana, se ajusta la mascarilla con estampado de tigre (mejor dejársela puesta, ¿no?), prepara el pasaporte y se lo entrega al agente con guantes y precaución y los ojillos azules brillando de súplica y las oraciones agazapadas en las comisuras de los labios. ¿Podrá cruzar?

Por lo general, ya sabe de qué pie cojea cada uno de los agentes aduanales, a quienes no les importan un comino ni la gente que se muere de hambre en su país ni los niños de los orfanatos. Sin embargo, el de hoy, ese tal Jorge López, siempre lo desconcierta, porque, según por dónde sople el viento, ya muestra compasión, ya furia; y le puede dar tanto por tramitar oficialmente el impuesto por transportar alimentos, como por carraspear con la prepotencia propia de la autoridad para forzar el soborno.

Jeff sonríe con los ojos y chapurrea un buenos días, un cómo está, señor, un muchas gracias. Para no mostrar signos de debilidad y preocupación por el registro, se concentra en dibujar mentalmente su recorrido de este día. Antes de comenzar el reparto, conducirá hasta el kilómetro 27 para comprar carne, leche, huevos y fruta en el súper El Roble. El dinero, que proviene de diversos donantes y de buena parte de los beneficios que Jeff saca de su propia tienda en eBay, da para una cantidad decente de alimentos frescos. Últimamente pasea por los abundantes pasillos del supermercado con perplejidad: están hasta arriba de papel higiénico, porque nadie se puede permitir el lujo de arramplar y almacenar en caso de hecatombe, porque, en los tiempos que corren, un supermercado lleno es sinónimo de miles de armarios y frigoríficos vacíos. En Ciudad Juárez mata a más gente el hambre y la droga que este dichoso virus.

El agente López le habla como si no lo hubiera visto doscientas cuarenta y dos veces y Jeff responde con amabilidad contenida y el agente López pregunta si tiene algo que declarar y Jeff menciona las tres neveras hasta arriba de panes y dulces y el agente López lo mira con desconcierto y examina el vehículo con los ojos colmados de la sospecha de quien trabaja en las profundidades de la incertidumbre entre el bien y el mal.

Jeff siente fulminantemente que ese registro rutinario es una balsa de aceite y lo invade la tranquilidad. Que sea lo que Dios quiera. A Jeff lo que de verdad le preocupa es que los amos del cotarro aprovechen la situación para atraer a los jóvenes más desesperados y los obliguen a vender droga. En abril impusieron en México el distanciamiento social obligatorio y cerraron más del setenta por ciento de las grandes fábricas de Juárez. Ahora mucha gente está de patitas en la calle y morirá de hambre: quedarse en casa no es una opción, sino un privilegio. 

Encima de todo, ese virus tiene a los cárteles cabreados, porque la mayoría de los ingredientes para elaborar narcóticos vienen de China y las prohibiciones a la hora de transportar mercancías desde el país asiático se traducen en esta tierra como privaciones para enriquecerse. Muy cabreados. Las fronteras cerradas dilapidan las rutas de la droga. Cabreadísimos. Hace unas semanas, asesinaron a cinco gringos, incluida una profesora de colegio con la que Jeff colaboraba.

Pero a Jeff no le dan miedo esos matones y conduce la camioneta de acá para allá con sosiego, con su musiquita cristiana y con su «You have a friend in Jesus» en la matrícula, repitiéndose y repitiéndose que los tipos malos temen a Dios. Con sesenta y siete años, lo que quizás debería temer de verdad es el virus, por ser grupo de riesgo y andar de un lado para otro, pero le da mucho más pavor que su gente no tenga qué llevarse a la boca.

El agente López mira a Jeff con apatía: parece que hoy toca arancel legal; doscientos, trescientos pesos por nevera tendrá que pagar. No es tan mal momento ahora en realidad: la crisis sanitaria no impide que los funcionarios sigan cobrando, así que Jeff solo se ve obligado a recurrir a los sobornos un tercio de las veces que cruza la frontera. La situación empeora después de las elecciones federales, cuando cada presidente que se marcha tiene la fea costumbre de vaciar las arcas del estado y dejar a los agentes aduanales temblando; y como no cobran nada durante tres o cuatro meses, se olvidan de pedir que se rellene el papelito oficial y se les llena la boca de precios ridículos, en la certeza de que aquel flujo de gringos alimentará a sus familias. Aún queda un año y pico para la próximas elecciones, así que, fuera del plano moral, a Jeff en realidad le da igual una cosa que otra: siempre y cuando declare lo que lleva, en los tiempos tranquilos la suma de los impuestos y del soborno es idéntica y solo varían los bolsillos en los que acaba, pero ese no es problema suyo. Él solo quiere estar del otro lado. 

Espera a que el agente rellene tal o cual papel, firma uno o dos documentos, paga esto y lo otro y por fin cruza la frontera a su segundo hogar, aquel paraje dejado de la mano de Dios —sin agua potable, sin alcantarillado, sin asfaltar y sin esperanza— y suspira con alivio. Jeff no se plantea parar y seguirá realizando sus tres viajes semanales en aquella camioneta que solo conoce El Paso y Juárez y que ya carga casi medio millón de kilómetros y de tartaletas y de bizcochos y de tiramisú y pasteles y de tartas y de magdalenas y de coronas y de dulces y de rollos y de panes y de aprendizajes.


Más cuentos pandémicos basados en historias reales en
El amor en los tiempos del coronavirus,
de Patricia Martín Rivas.

El amor en los tiempos de coronavirus_Patricia Martín Rivas


La eclosión neovetusta de las palabras «misa en streaming» le causó un regocijo embadurnado de alivio. Se ha resignado estoicamente a renunciar a las caminatas por el Dish, a las clases de jazzercise, a los paseos en bici de acá para allá, por mucho que le gusten. Todo sea por el bien común. Y, bueno, dispone de un gran jardín trasero, donde podría correr, bailar o saltar en la cama elástica si quisiera. Nunca lo ha hecho, pero por qué no.

El ejercicio físico no es, pues, su mayor preocupación, pero sí perderse la misa de los domingos. Eso; eso sí que no lo perdona. Ha dado una oportunidad a los vídeos de meditación guiada en YouTube y a las conversaciones teológicas durante la cena en familia; pero, después de dos semanas sin las palabras de terciopelo del cura, el huequito en el estómago se agranda a cada segundo. ¿Cómo afrontar estos tiempos turbulentos sin la paz espiritual de la santa congregación dominical?

Por eso, solo con leer «misa en streaming» en la web de su iglesia —a pesar de sus significados chirriantes, casi de cronología antónima—, se sintió un poquitito más cerca del cielo.

Hoy domingo, se ha vestido como para una boda y se ha dispuesto a corregir exámenes mientras espera a que empiece el servicio. Ha conectado la videollamada veintitrés minutos y cincuenta y siete segundos antes del inicio de la misa, cuando aún no había ni una sola alma por el ciberespacio cristiano, así que sigue tachando errores y poniendo notas, más distraída que de costumbre, debido a las campanitas que suenan, casi celestialmente, cada vez que alguien se conecta.

Seis minutos y catorce segundos antes de la misa en streaming, aparta los exámenes para revisarlos en un momento de más clarividencia y se empieza a fijar en las imágenes del resto de asistentes. Los hay por decenas y, cada vez que alguien habla, su ventana se convierte en la principal y muestra todos los secretos hogareños sin despojos, transformando en un santiamén a todos los demás en míseros e involuntarios espías de salones.

Aunque la longevidad de los parroquianos no es ninguna novedad, Caroline no puede evitar que le llame la atención la gran cantidad de pastillas en primer plano, de respiradores en el último, de bastones y andadores por aquí y por allá —sin juzgar, sin juzgar, que es pecado: pero ¿no crees que es llamativo?—. A ella, que baja la media de edad un buen puñadito de años, le resulta casi pecaminoso espiar en los salones y salones de aquellos ancianos, los pobres, ahí entre sus pastilleros, sus cacharros ortopédicos, sus cojines bordados y sus fotos de antes de la guerra.

Empieza la santa misa; y los abuelitos, que usan el ordenador de pascuas a ramos, no están familiarizados en absoluto con el concepto «silenciar el micro». Las palabras del padre se ven, incesante e inagotablemente, interrumpidas por un «si aquí no hay ni Cristo», un «cielos, cómo funciona esto», un «sube el volumen, Joseph, por el amor de Dios». Las imágenes del padre se intercalan con señoras emperifolladas que gritan que no se enteran, con señores medio sordos que no se enteran de que gritan, con nietos y nietos que gritan y no se enteran de que no se enteran.

Estrépito y caos: qué calvario.

Caroline, vestida como un pincel y deseosa del momento, cada vez se siente más distraída y no hace más que intentar centrarse en la palabra de Dios —gloria a ti, señor Jesús—, pero la situación es más hilarante que solemne. Y exasperante. Y qué risa, pero qué desesperación, pero qué risa.

El cura resopla, bendice, resopla, resopla.

Un hombre joven —no tanto joven, joven, sino joven en comparación con el resto—, aparece en la pantalla principal como caído del cielo y muestra en un folio las instrucciones sobre cómo silenciar el maldito micrófono, escritas con letras del tamaño de una manzana. Caroline ve el cielo abierto, pero la bendición dura unos instantes: los longevos corderos, clic, clic, clic, lo intentan, clic, clic, clic, pero nada, clic, nada, clic, clic, nada, nada, nada.

Infierno en streaming.

Caroline explota por dentro —porque la procesión va por dentro, pero mecagüen D…—. Se muerde la lengua, se santigua, hace ademán de despedirse y cuelga cerrando el ordenador con violencia contenida.

Y su casa se sume súbitamente en el silencio más sigiloso. Y, ahí, en ese sacro silencio, ahí, ahí, escondido, ahí se resguarda su Dios.


Más cuentos pandémicos basados en historias reales en
El amor en los tiempos del coronavirus,
de Patricia Martín Rivas.

El amor en los tiempos de coronavirus_Patricia Martín Rivas


Qué bonito el mensaje de Rose. ¿No es encantadora Rose? Hace años que no hablaban y ahora, de repente, le manda estas bellas palabras. Siempre ha tenido un corazón enorme Rose, ¿verdad? El mensaje de su antigua amiga arropa a Cris toda la mañana y le ilumina el confinamiento durante unos cuantos días. La buena de Rose, qué ramalazo le ha dado, qué atenta, mírala.

Menos de una semana después le llega un saludo de Linda, tan melifluo como el de su otra amiga: que si su mágica sonrisa, que si sus gráciles andares, que si su dulzura inigualable. Cris se siente bien, arropada por el cariño de la gente a la que quiere. Qué suerte tiene. Qué suerte.

El mensaje de Richard es el que despierta sus sospechas: «Siempre que vislumbre el cielo californiano, sentiré que me están mirando tus ojos azules, que son, han sido y serán los más bellos que existan.» ¿Y este hombre? ¿Cómo que ahora le da por la zalamería? Él siempre ha sido como un libro cerrado, como un ser inerte y sin sentimientos que existe pero que no es. Y ahora qué mosca le habrá picado. Bueno.


Bueno, lo que pasa es que Cris lleva años enferma y los mensajes se multiplican víricamente, se convierten en un goteo constante y diario. Lo que empezó como un rayo de luz se convierte en una tormenta: más que de cariño, cada mensaje está cargado de truenos fulminantes con previsiones obituarias.

¿Años enferma? Lustros, más bien: un tumor cerebral, lupus, linfoma, cáncer de estómago, EPOC y a saber qué más. Su cuerpo, paradigma y viva imagen del vademécum. Lo que pasa, pues, es que nadie cree que Cris vaya a sobrevivir a la pandemia y no le mandan mensajes de amor, sino de despedida, de muerte. 

Cris se enfurece: si alguien va a sobrevivir, esa es ella: la máxima superviviente. No por nada, simplemente se especializa en protegerse. Ella podría dar lecciones magistrales sobre pasar semanas sin poner un pie en la calle sin perder la cabeza, sobre evitar virus y bacterias, sobre sobrevivir.

Como vuelva a recibir un mensaje sobre su sonrisa, sus andares o su dulzura, va a vomitar. Quizás el coronavirus no pueda con ella, pero esta avalancha de mensajes contagiosos la tiene con un pie en la tumba. De verdad.

Se acumulan palabras y palabras y palabras, que se niega a leer, así que se le enquistan y le supuran y la envenenan. Para sobreviviente, Cris. Basta ya.

Pero, una mañana, ojeriza y vencida, abre el ordenador y lee la ristra de mensajes de muerte apilados. Así, todos juntitos, resplandecen. Cris brilla: quizás sí sean palabras de cariño. Eros/Thánatos/Eros: palabras de amor pero de muerte pero de amor.


Más cuentos pandémicos basados en historias reales en
El amor en los tiempos del coronavirus,
de Patricia Martín Rivas.

El amor en los tiempos de coronavirus_Patricia Martín Rivas