Palo Alto Weekly 34th Annual Short Story Contest
First Place Adult

Illustration by Paul Llewellyn

Love, and a Vaccine

by David Woodbury

Author Bio

David Woodbury and his wife, Anne, moved to California in the early 1980s from the Midwest and settled in Palo Alto in 1994, where they raised three sons. Woodbury spent most of his career in academic and educational publishing (Stanford University Press and Cengage Learning), but now devotes his time to writing and research and coordinating group tours of American Civil War sites and historic landscapes of the Wild West (whtours.org).

Woodbury said the local shelter-in-place order brought back memories from his college years, which inspired him to write this story.

"Even though my college studies were a lifetime ago, (it) did bring to mind a dimly remembered reading assignment (from some class or another) — "The Diary of Samuel Pepys," who chronicled his days during the Great Plague of London in 1665," Woodbury said. "This being my first pandemic, I wanted to mark it, but irreverently, since humor dilutes anxiety and makes grim days more tolerable."

Judge Comments

"Love, and Vaccine" is the story you knew was coming. All you didn't know was the guise it would assume. Grieving? Madcap? Imbued with sadness and loss? Terrifying? No, to all four. Instead, think witty, wry, acerbic, self-deprecating, insightful, droll. Sheltering in place never sounded so haimish or looked so original than as filtered through this narrator's imagination..

— Tom Parker

Day one: Shelter-in-Place Diary

March 17, 2020 — Palo Alto, California

Dear Diary:

So far, so good. Tuesday morning, and it felt odd, after coffee, not to hurry off to the office. Then I remembered I don't have a job. Things are shaping up nicely.

I felt a little giddy knowing that none of my neighbors will come to the door today. Or ever. Midmorning I had a sudden shelter-in-place epiphany: anti-social distancing and social distancing are indistinguishable from each other. I'm free to be myself. I spent the afternoon writing letters to the governor and other elected representatives, imploring them to extend the shelter-in-place order for several more weeks.

9:00 p.m. brings the first sign of trouble — We're out of snacks already. Is it ethical to send my teenage son to the market for salty, crunchy comestibles, and will the virus police consider that an "essential" trip?

9:15 to 9:45 p.m. — browsed available snack products online.

All in all, a good day.

DAY TWO

Dear Diary:

In the morning, I rise. The sun also rises. Oatmeal for breakfast. As a child, I liked to read the cereal box while shoveling in processed grains. Now, with the internet, I Google the Quaker Oats Company on my phone and discover some disturbing truths. For one, there does not appear to have been any actual members of the Society of Friends involved in this operation. What a surprise that these ersatz Quakers also promote a cereal with a fake "Cap'n" — the three stripes on his sleeve rank him lower than that. The oatmeal was good, but breakfast left me disillusioned.

During my midday repast, I tried to calm my mind. Still no symptoms, thankfully, but I can't shake a sense of foreboding that my kids will ask me to play a board game from the 1980s.

The dog is unfazed by the public health crisis. Sheltering in place is her specialty. She studies us one by one, brazenly trying to gauge the weakest among us, the first to cull from the herd. I discreetly ply her with treats in the hopes she'll save me for last.

After supper, I commenced research on infectious disease outbreaks, hoping to turn the tables on this virus. The revelations are coming fast now. First up,"The Omega Man," last seen when I was in seventh grade, before I'd ever heard of the NRA. Had no idea it was, in fact, the second adaptation — after Vincent Price's, "The Last Man on Earth" — of Richard Matheson's novel, "I am Legend." If only COVID-19 carriers recoiled from bright lights, this would be a piece of cake.

Hump Day feels like every other day now, but with oatmeal.

DAY THREE

Dear Diary:

Last night I dreamt of the coronavirus — wet, amorphous, and sinister, like evil Dr. Huxtable's Jell-O pudding — sliding across the floor as I stood frozen. It washed over my toes, moist and cold as death. Way too moist. Turns out it was just the dog licking my foot, and I awoke to a new day symptom-free, and clean-heeled.

Scanning the day's headlines was reassuring. All the news was bad, even catastrophic, and offered a comforting sense of continuity. What is a pandemic, but the cherry on top of a delicious dystopia years in the making. It's almost poetic, like a Richard Brautigan poem. But the paucity of snacks is really getting under my skin.

Day three of the shelter-in-place order, and fully 48 hours since the last of the SkinnyPop Popcorn was consumed (even the little bits and unpopped kernels). This was a serious miscalculation. In a day or two, I'll be chewing on stale Saltines, like pioneers on the Oregon Trail, or Quakers taming the sylvan wilderness of "Penn's Woods," if Quakers ate crackers.

This evening the governor told 39 million Californians to go home and stay home. Does he even know how many Mad Max extras have put down roots here? They're not going to take this lying down, not from a guy named Gavin. Before this is over, I fear we'll all be characters in a Cormac McCarthy novel.

Luckily, one of my online panic orders arrived at the door, in an unmarked box, on a day when the package thieves who work my block are apparently self-isolating. I hurried the mystery package into the quarantine closet for decontamination, as if it were an Apollo astronaut, fished from the sea after surviving the dangers of outer space. "See you in a few days," I said. "You're safe now."

DAY FOUR

Dear Diary:

Slept fitfully, though I was neither fit, nor full. It wasn't dreams of malevolent pudding that disturbed my rest, and for that I am thankful. Rather, it was nervous anticipation that kept me tossing, anxiety over the perilous trek upon which I, alone, am destined to embark. All our lives we pause to wonder, will this day see the beginning of my hero's journey? Anne, my winsome consort, calls it "a trip to the store."

This morning she spoke the words I had been dreading, the words I knew were coming as surely as infection follows exposure, unless you're lucky. Palms pressed firmly over my ears suppressed the sound, but I failed to lower my lids in time. In one moment, the movement of her lips was plain to read.

"We need milk," she said.

Ever so gently, I shook my head, kindness or fear welling in my eyes, and mustered the faint, closed-mouth smile of my emotionally stunted Lutheran heritage.

"All we need," I said softly, "is love. And a vaccine."

"Get some eggs, too."

If Doctor Fauci is to be believed — and really, there is no one else — a vaccine is 18 months away. No way the rest of the milk will last that long. I set about making preparations, directing our youngest to fashion an N95 multi-purpose, valved respirator, with adjustable straps and — if at all possible — a flexible nose bridge. He returned with an oven mitt and rubber band, and I felt bad for having asked too much.

It's not my lucky day. Or maybe there's a better way to look at it. Like old Ellis Bell said in "No Country for Old Men," "You never know what worse luck your bad luck has saved you from."

Today I'll sing my death song, and make the journey on the morrow.

DAY FIVE

Dear Diary:

"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by the virus, starving hysterical naked, Ubering themselves through the Silicon Valley streets at dawn looking for a salty snack ..."

Outside, it was 63 degrees, a typically pleasant, Midpeninsula spring day. Birdsong and the fragrance of blossoms were thick in the air. Someone without an internet connection or a manageable data plan could be excused for thinking this a paradise, rather than the target-rich hunting grounds of an invisible killer.

Gavin has us all grounded, but you wouldn't know it from the number of neighbors walking about. I studied their body language from afar. Any of them could be a vector — or worse, the kind of person who hoards toilet tissue at the first sign of trouble. All the vaccines in the world couldn't mitigate that character flaw.

Some Zuckerberg types, chins on their chests, typed furiously on their phones, probably coding new apps for virtual hand sanitizer, or ordering takeout from the oxygen bar. More seasoned residents were out, too, perambulating in homemade approximations of hazmat suits. The eerie absence of roaring leaf blowers left space for softer sounds, like unseen sobbing, and the tintinnabulation of dog collars, rabies vaccination and city license tags jangling 'neath the jaws of chihuahuas pulling gray-haired pensioners toward under-staffed clinics and essential coffee shops.

My milk run was uneventful, though it was my first time in Safeway outfitted like a dental hygienist prepping for oral surgery. In a cruel blow, the snack and paper product aisles lay in ruins like Richmond after the war, but I was able to pick up everything else, including, perchance, a communicable disease. Only time will tell. In the nascent Pandemic Era, one can discern distinct classes of shoppers emerging. A surprising number did not get the social-distancing memo (the clueless), or assumed they were exempt (budding Darwin Award nominees).

Back in the lot I sought the refuge of my Ford Fiesta, a model name that always felt like a stretch, but today, in this plague-besieged warscape, just sounds ridiculous. All around, serious looking Rams and Titans and Outbacks stood ready to transport inhuman amounts of Charmin to enclaves in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

DAY SIX

Dear Diary:

Sunday, Wednesday, Tuesday — one is as another now. Some hold Sunday above all other days of the week, even when there's no football on television. Now every day is Sunday, and a "week" holds no significance, whether our own seven-day Babylonian version, or the eight-day Beatles variety, or even the 10-day contrivance of the Egyptians. Today is one more precious day in the shelter, and I thank the Egyptian gods for that.

I mark the passage of sheltered time not like the Birdman of Alcatraz, to serve out a sentence, but as a celebration, an acknowledgment of each new gift, each new rotation of the globe on its axis, which none of us can count upon, and none of us is owed.

Went for a walk this morning, practicing extreme avoidance, something I have been perfecting for many years, and which I now employ as second nature. But even the most skillful introvert has a blind spot. Hardly a block from home, my 6-foot Virus Buffer Zone was flagrantly violated by a displaced treadmill enthusiast, obviously unaccustomed to the progressively forward movement attendant to street running. Is it the too tight activewear that clouds one's judgement? Do the noxious playlists (I'm guessing) piped through counterfeit AirPods skew one's depth perception?

After lunch, I caught up on the latest. It's still too soon to know whether our efforts to flatten the curve in the outside world are paying dividends. In the inside world, curves are becoming more pronounced. I watched the White House daily press briefing with the sound off, for my protection. Dr. Fauci was at the podium, demonstrating proper hand washing technique. The president, resplendent in a knee-length necktie, was holding up a brightly colored bar graph comparing 2016 electoral college results to 2020 coronavirus hotspots.

I turned off the TV and scrolled through Twitter. Someone with discipline and focus — possibly institutionalized — had posted a 73-tweet thread on the etymology of "Triscuit." I found the analysis unconvincing, but appetizing. My thoughts turned to mortality, a common theme of plagues and scourges throughout time. What can you realistically hope for, but food and shelter, and a reasonably loyal dog. And love. These are the only real things. All the rest is a lie, or illusion. Robert Stroud wasn't even allowed to have birds at Alcatraz. That was at Leavenworth.

I never pictured myself dying in a pandemic. Who does? Like most people in this town, I just assumed I would meet my demise in a crosswalk, pinned under the wheels of a self-driving Tesla. I may yet live to realize that destiny, coronavirus be damned.

DAY SEVEN

Dear Diary:

When it comes to riding out disasters, assuming you're not hospitalized, you can't beat COVID-19 for creature comforts. I tried to impress upon my sons that it wasn't always this way with cataclysms. Loma Prieta wrecked the World Series in '89, I told them. We went days without electricity, forced to resort to conversation, and manual can openers. Unprepared citizens, those hapless souls without working flashlights, or cocaine, went to bed as soon as the sun went down, just like paperboys of yore, and Seventh-day Adventists. "What's a paperboy?" the boys asked. "A male child," I said, "made of papier-mâché."

How will youngsters today recount the viral invasion of 2020 to succeeding generations? Will they wax nostalgic about endlessly streaming video, and the Spring Break That Never Ended? Or will their memories be laced with terror, the all-consuming fear of invisible pathogens catapulted in droplets from the noses and mouths of friends and strangers, or spread upon our very doorsteps, where contaminated Amazon packages were stolen in the night. Will they speak in hushed tones about Black Easter, when entire denominations of impaired parishioners contracted the disease en masse? These are the life events that will be adapted for the Netflix Original.

Historians will have different tales to tell. Go to the books, my children. The remaindered tomes of unpaid chroniclers, preserved in yard sales and Friends of the Library fundraisers, will cut to the heart of the Pandemic Era and the cult of nearly supernatural incompetence that brought an empire to its knees. Chapter One may document the wholesale transfer of the nation's last remaining wealth and resources into the coffers of Carnival Cruise Lines, and favored industries. Check the appendices for expansive lists of bailouts, to include Florida's illustrious Sea-to-Lake golf resort, the Winter (of our Discontent) White House. Underfunded documentaries will be produced, but will not air on the History Channel, unless perhaps very late on a Tuesday night, after a rerun of Children of the Ice Road Truckers.

Oh, dear diary, I digress. I intended to note that I rose early today and took the dog out to do her business, even as the business of the world around us is grinding to a halt. She sniffed around for just the right place to wet the soil, while I cataloged potential symptoms in my head and upper respiratory system. Lungs functioning normally. The dog is functioning normally, too. Today, I resolved to think only of gratitude, until further notice.

For today was special, the day a shelter became a sanctuary. It was a pandemic holy day. I retrieved the box from the closet, and called the family together for the great unveiling. My children and my radiant helpmate took turns guessing about the precious cargo. Perhaps it is some desperately needed bathroom tissue. Is it really so scarce? Maybe a case of Purell, once ubiquitous in our world, but now as elusive as the fabled Chupacabras. No, thank goodness. It was better than that, better than anything and shipped direct from the manufacturer, enough SkinnyPop to last a month. I washed my hands for 20 seconds, and used the back of my wrist to wipe a tear from my eye.