HAWK HAVEN, Florida
28.6° N, 81.3° W
The apocalypse was never meant to be so dull. Governor Hamfist DeSantis declared the state will reopen this week (coronavirus be damned), but there is little dancing in the streets. Residents remain at home, huddled with their Wi-Fi and 9-millimeter, suffering cabin-fever and other claustrophobic strains of condo-cholera, duplex-dementia or falling-asleep-in-the-bathtub melancholia. There have been those who have strayed from their bunker during these last weeks of quarantine, seeking any variance to the rote routines of the forsaken, finding nowhere to go. Blinking at the sun as troglodytes emerging from the darkness, these desperate souls with pasty faces & patchy beards, mangy versions of their former-selves, scampered through the high grass, scurried through the ditches, running limbs-akimbo downhill until crashing into retention ponds of glorious meaninglessness, playing in the mud like a lunatic with shit. Rational thought may be cornerstone to humanity, but it’s as fragile as the wet paper sack carrying your marbles. And there is nothing more human than to lose your marbles.
Even during times as these, there is always somewhere to go.
Hawk Haven’s 7-11 is a gasless gas-station, existing simply as a sundry and lotto purveyor. It is at a residential crossroads; there is no through-traffic here, all business is local. Patrons are neighbors… with the exception of the rag-and-bone man in the parking lot strapping down the garbage-day finds in the bed of his pickup truck (someone’s abandoned rusty fridge, a gimpy barstool, old nudie magazines lightly-charred from spousal attempted-arson). Before coronavirus, in the pre-apocalypse, neighbors would synchronize ventures to this 7-11 in unison to purchase tobacco, scratch-offs and coffee in Styrofoam cups, communing together, discussing recent gossip: whose kid is in rehab again, whose realtor is shtupping whose husband, whose yard has not been adequately maintained. In this coronavirus apocalypse, however, crowds of a different sort gather. The bygone mid-morning café of suburbanites has been repurposed into a 24-hour grog-shop, a watering hole for listless barflies or, if otherwise, dregs nonetheless. When no one else is there for you, 7-11 is waiting. And as long as Jaqueline is at the counter, you can stay as long as you like… as long as we’re doing business.
Her corporate name-tag reads “Jaqueline”, but she is known locally as “Bootstrap Jaq”. She’ll brown bag your 40-ounce malt liquor, or your sixer of hard-seltzer, and – with a wink and an under-the-table uncorking fee – she’ll happily pry the beverages open on-premises. At the going market price, Jaq will sell you contraband cartons of Chinese cigarettes and rolls of toilet paper. If you’re out of work and cannot afford the $5 gallon bottle of Mississippi Merlot, Jaq will offer credit, but you’d better pay the vig or her cousins from Tampa will sell your shinbones online as “rare Elephant tusk paperweight”. During the quarantine, Jaq has facilitated correspondence between police & their informants, drug suppliers & their demand, extramarital lovers & their transgressions, all of whom would otherwise be unable to communicate under the shelter-in-place restrictions. Bootstrap Jaq is, above all else, a capitalist… thus the nickname.
When she isn’t minding the cash register, Bootstrap Jaq is in her journals, writing fictions for a book, “711 Ways to Die in a 7-11”. She is only up to death #32, but her 32nd story is a beauty: sci-fi prose about Covid-29, which inflicts in its sickened a zombie-like hunger for consuming bat appendages. In her story, the 7-11 corporate executives of 2029 take advantage of the symptom and begin selling undercooked bat-wings on the spit (next to latter-century un-kosher hotdogs) which helps spread Covid-29 to new customers.
“It’s an interesting premise, but…” I grimace through my critique. We’re on the front stoop of the store. Jaq’s leaning against the brick & mortar, her facemask beneath her chin as she smokes a cigarette. I tell her, “Coronavirus doesn’t spread directly to humans from bats.”
“How do you know? Have you eaten bat?” Bootstrap Jaq counters. “If people start eating sick bats, they are going to catch something.”
“Something.” I allow. I have no reason to be disagreeable. Especially with this very agreeable morning beer buzz, courtesy of a light breakfast and the tallboy of Manigan’s Ale the Earl of Feck Hall bought me. Earl is as nearby as social-distancing allows, burping-up his finished can of Manigan’s into the bandana strapped across his face. There are four of us altogether, loitering in an odd shuffle-footed slow-dance as we each maintain the recommended distance.
“Welp” the Earl of Feck Hall prefaces his question as he reaches for something to steady himself. “If the Chinese didn’t get Covid’d by eating chopped-bat suey, how’d they get us all sick in the first place?” His eyes are bouncing like a pinball between his cell phone, his empty can of beer and Jaq’s bosom.
Bootstrap Jaq explains it to Earl, “What the man is saying is bats ain’t like mosquitos. They can’t get us sick with just any old virus. Maybe the rabies, but with coronavirus, mmm, it needs a middleman, like a pig, to get the virus mutated into something which could infect people.”
“Right.” I confirm. “If a bat roosting near a pig farm pisses in the trough, it may infect a few pigs…”
“And then the butcher buggers the sick pig on his lunch break.” John Chardonnay, the retired sailor with dual-citizenship in Britain and Australia, has decided to join our conversation. He continues the domino-effect storyline, “So Pig-buggering butcher then coughs bat-flu residue into Sally’s salad. Now Sally gots it. Sally boards a flight for LaGuardia. She dances burlesque in the Bronx. The tassels on her jubblies will smack the grin off your face, lad.” He says, deathly serious, to his mate, Earl. “Now all of New York gots the cough.” John is sipping tea in a 7-11 branded disposable cup he’s spiked with home-brought whiskey (rather than pay for Bootstrap Jaq’s bootlegged Schnapps). John continues, “Same thing happened with AIDs, but in that case it was some bloke who buggered a monkey.”
“You telling lies, Mister John.” Bootstrap Jaq, mildly amused, shakes her head. “AIDs ain’t from some dude having relations with a monkey. They say HIV passed from ape to human at least a dozen times in last hundred years.”
“Same bloke, dozen monkeys.” John Chardonnay stands by his initial premise as he holds up twelve fingers and cites his worldly knowledge. “It was a Dutch bloke, they told me in Antwerp. Of course, in Amsterdam, they say the buggerer’s Flemish.”
“Or it was one monkey.” the Earl of Feck Hall suggests, holding up his index finger. “One monkey and a clown-car full of Shiners looking to gang-bang.”
Bootstrap Jaq scoffs. Her head is shaking again; I can hear the jangle of her earrings. Jaq says, “Ain’t nobody laying down with a janky-ass monkey. You ever been to the zoo, Earrrrrlllll? Mister John? The monkeys sit there flinging their own mess. You have to be something kinky to be into that. No. More likely, hunter kills a sick ape. Or some dude got the virus from a monkey scratch.”
“A monkey scratch?” John Chardonnay laughs, smug on his spiked tea. “Love, we had a saying, before heading into port, ‘Don’t scratch the monkey’. No matter how badly they ask for it.” John reaches his fingers to tap his shaved skull, “They like it right here behind the ear.”
“What are you going to do, Jaq?” the Earl of Feck Hall asks. His face is furrowed with feigned worry, his dense eyebrows twitching like caterpillars at a pie-eating contest. “When all the madness is over? Go back to only selling Slurpees?”
Bootstrap Jaq tilts her head down and with the charm of a schoolmarm, looks up at Earl. She says his name as if it held five times the consonants, “Earrrrrlllll, there ain’t any end to this madness. Governor can open the economy all he wants, but that don’t mean the pork men in East Dakota are going to stop dying which means fewer pork chops sent to F-L-A. When you go to the grocery store and see they are out of baby-back, you’re going to know the only place to get a rib is going to be down at the 7-11 if you ask Miss Jaq nicely. I’ll be just fine; don’t you worry about me, Earrrrrlllll.”
My cell phone vibrates in my pocket. It is a message from my bunker-partner, Josefina. “Have you found your mother?” Damn. I scan the nearby horizon. I text back, “NOPE.” Then “still lookin might check 711”. I am not a regular at the Hawk Haven 7-11, mind. Mother Neverman went missing this morning and the most logical place she would seek – on foot – would be the convenience store where she could get a bottle of kombucha and the local paper. Perhaps it is time I returned to my search. I thank the Earl of Feck Hall for the beer and Bootstrap Jaq for the hospitality. I get back on my bicycle and, after a wobbly start, renew my search for Mom.