Shelter In Place, Ch. 6

shelter in place



Caleb felt a bit silly amidst the most elegant crowd he had ever seen. He had arrived twenty minutes early and the place was already packed; to make things worse, it took the City Club bouncer five minutes to find his name on the list. Even after Caleb explained he was there with Ellstrom, the bouncer smirked a bit at his hard hat and safety vest. Caleb tugged at the vest as he walked in, wishing that Ellstrom had told him to wear something else. He and the other guys stood out in their fluorescent yellow, and would presumably stand out even more afterwards, when the speeches would begin.

He noticed a five-piece jazz combo in a corner but could not hear them at all. It was hard to believe that the chit-chat could make so much noise. The place was packed; there was hardly any room to move even on the staircase, and none whatsoever on the balcony overlooking Diego Rivera’s mural. Caleb had never heard of Rivera or his murals, but Ellstrom told him that was the big draw of the place. They had to go big or go home, and a giant benefit there would help the business immensely. Even though the building itself was not far, Ellstrom preferred to separate the two events; earlier that day, they cut the ribbon and did the laying-the-ground thing with the photo op with Willie Brown. Now it was time to talk about all the good it did the city and to get some of its more glittering citizens involved.

The willowy woman in the elegant metallic tunic clanged a dessert spoon against her champagne flute. Surprisingly, the gentle chime cut through the crowd noise, which gradually subsided. The woman approached the microphone and said, “we’re so happy to host you today to celebrate Building Futures’ new contract downtown. You can pass by the building and see their amazing progress. But Neil Ellstrom doesn’t just build office buildings; he builds up young people’s futures from the ground up and we are all so impressed by his incredible work. So, without further ado, here’s Neil!”

A loud applause sounded and Ellstrom emerged from a corner, dressed in a crisp charcoal suit, a shy grin on his face. He gently motioned for the crowd to stop; Caleb, who by now had seen him on a few such occasions, knew that Ellstrom disliked too much attention, and liked him even more because of it. As Ellstrom reached to the microphone, a buzzing feedback sound startled him a bit, and he chuckled a bit. The crowd fell very quiet.

“I am so grateful to see you all here today,” said Ellstrom. “I know how busy you all are. And I also know how often you get called on for donations for so many good causes. We appreciate you and have some great drinks and great food for you. But before doing that, I wanted to introduce you to someone very special.”

Caleb’s heart stopped. He disliked attention, but Ellstrom was not like other people. Caleb’s face and palms grew hot. I can’t talk, he can’t make me, he thought, the warmth spreading around his collar drawing his attention and impeding any thought of some planned words. Ellstrom continued.

“He comes to us from El Salvador, walking the desert with his mother and two siblings. And now he has a full time job with us at Building Futures and is graduating soon from City College.”

Caleb’s hands grew clammy, cold sweat gluing his shit to his back.

Chris stepped up to the microphone, his thousand-watt-smile shining brighter than his yellow hard hat. He reached out to the microphone and said, “Hello, San Francisco!” The crowd applauded and yelled. Caleb’s mouth pursed. He doesn’t fit in here any more than I do, he thought. He’s fronting like some kind of deejay to this flush crowd. “I wanna tell you guys a little bit about where I came from and about this guy—” he pointed at Ellstrom—“giving me a chance. Where I come from, we say, ‘He who comes closer to good tree, good shade shelters him.’ So thank you, Neil, for being my good tree.” The audience applauded again, cheering. Jesus, they’re eating out of his hand, Caleb thought bitterly. An ugly thought popped into his head: Neil wants Chris closer to him, more in the limelight, because he’s Latino. I’m not rags-to-riches enough for him. And he immediately felt guiltier for thinking it.

His guilt intensified when he felt a familiar hand on his shoulder. “Hey, Caleb,” said Neil, “I’m psyched to see you here. Have you had any of the champagne?”

“I don’t… they…” said Caleb. Neil burst out laughing. “You’re kidding me. No one’s going to ask you for an ID tonight. Here,” Neil picked up a flute from a waiter’s tray, “bottoms up.”

Caleb took a sip. Amanda and Steve floated before him. Drinking, going out, and what more? You know where that road leads, they said. Caleb shut his eyes and tossed back the entire flute.

“Wow,” said Neil, “I’ve never seen anyone chug Domain Chandon before.” He laughed so hard that tears dotted his eyes. “I’m just teasing you, relax. Let’s see what Chris is up to.”

Yeah, let’s, thought Caleb and followed Neil. Chris was standing near the willowy woman. He had just finished talking and a group of people standing near them erupted applauding. Neil left Caleb, moving behind Chris, placing his arm on Chris’ shoulder. “I’m so sorry, folks,” he said. “I gotta take him away for a moment.” Chris flashed a victorious smile at Caleb. Neil raised an eyebrow at Caleb as he gently directed Chris toward Willie Brown. “Willie,” he said, “I want you to meet a very special young man.”

Caleb turned around and looked for the exit. Neil had helped him find a place to stay—a two-bedroom apartment converted into three miniscule studios. They worked long hours; Caleb was a crew leader now. It was true respite to have his own quiet place, small as it was. He looked forward to going there now. But as he angled his way to the door through the crowd, he felt a finger tapping his shoulder.

“What’s up?” Neil asked. “Off so soon?”

Caleb shrugged.

“I know you’re the real deal, Caleb,” said Neil. “You’re not good at making speeches. You’re the guy I need when I gotta get a job done. My right hand man, right?”

Caleb felt his chest soften a bit.

“Listen, I need you to do me a favor. We got this contract through some friends in Public Works, so we’re hosting a party for them at the Ruby tonight.” Caleb wondered whether the afternoon’s fundraiser would pay for the night’s reveling. “I need you to pick up a couple of guests on Cortland and drop them off at the party, okay?”

“Sure,” said Caleb. Neil tossed him the keys to his car. “Just—” he said, “oh, never mind. Look, make sure they’re properly dressed. This is a nice party, with some pretty flush people, and I don’t want any embarrassment.” Caleb nodded. Neil wrote up the directions on a piece of paper and asked him to bring the guests at half past midnight. “They’ll be waiting for you around midnight at this address.” He scribbled the address on the paper.


Cortland looked deserted at midnight. The cafés, the Jamaican restaurant, all were closed; streetlights shed yellow pastel pools on the sidewalks as Caleb drove up and down steep hills. The address seemed odd; it was a regular residential home, not somewhere he expected to find guests for a swanky party. But when he rang the bell, things became clearer.

A girl opened the door. She was short and very skinny, wearing a black minidress and too much eyeshadow. Her long black hair cascaded down her back. “Are you our ride to the Ruby?” she asked, barely moving her lips. Caleb nodded. The girl turned her back to him and called out to the hallway, “Chanel, we gotta go.”

Chanel, in a skimpy dress as well, her head a mess of shiny curls, came toward them through the hallway. “S’okay, I’m ready.”

Both girls sat in the back seat, holding hands. Caleb, sitting alone in front like a taxi driver, wasn’t inclined to ask questions, as he wouldn’t even know where to begin. The look on Chanel’s face seemed familiar—reminded him of things he preferred not to dwell on—and, while he heard the girls whispering to each other, he could not discern what they were saying.

Instead, he allowed a new worry to worm its way through his mind: Ruby was on Powell and there would be no parking. Should he drop off the girls and find parking? Or should all three of them park somewhere, like at the Mason garage, and walk? The girls were both wearing stilettos and he couldn’t really see them negotiating the inclines around Union Square before even getting to the party. But as the car approached the Ruby, he realized he should not have worried. A valet parking station was set up outside, with a man not much older than Caleb dressed in red.

“Here’s the keys” said Caleb. “Hold on, let me get the girls inside.”

The valet gave him a crooked smile. “I was told there would be a girl drop-off,” he said, “but nothing about you going in.”

“I’m with Ellstrom,” protested Caleb.

“You and the whole world and their wife,” said the valet. But Caleb followed the girls inside. The straight-haired one seemed hesitant about going in, but Chanel was raring to go. A bouncer swung open the heavy door and Caleb was instantly nauseated by the smell of stale beer. There were almost no women inside, mostly an assortment of guys Ellstrom’s age, the music was pounding, and the strobing lights were almost blinding.

Finally, out of a whirlpool of blue lights stepped Ellstrom himself. “Awesome,” said Ellstrom. “Thanks for dropping them off. Who’s Bella? And who’s Chanel?”

Bella did not respond. Chanel flashed a happy smile, which despite—or perhaps because—of her red lipstick made her seem like a little girl. She giggled. “I’m Chanel.”

“Nice to meet you, Chanel,” said Ellstrom. “Let me introduce you to some friends of mine.”

Caleb held out the keys. “No, nah, I don’t need ‘em right now,” said Ellstrom. “You just sit tight outside until Chris shows up. He’ll take ’em off your hands.” He offered an arm to each of the girls and turned away, the doors closing before Caleb. For a few moments, as he looked at them, his mind continued to project the blue strobing lights on them.

Shelter In Place, Ch. 5

shelter in place



“Abuelita!” Yanneth’s voice rang from inside the house, lifting Saraí’s spirits. She could feel her fear, which clung to her throughout the eerie bus ride, dissipate. “Yanneth!” She called back. “I’m here!”

Yanneth, tall and long-limbed, rushed to the door and to her grandmother’s arms. Saraí noticed that her once-gangly granddaughter moved more gracefully now, though she was still as spirited and buoyant as she had been in her younger years. “How was your ride, abuelita?” she asked.

“Pretty scary,” admitted Saraí. “The buses are completely empty and it feels like a ghost town.”

“Well, now you can stay with us,” reassured Yanneth. “Maris and I are pretty busy with school online, but we can hang out all the time. And will you teach us how to cook? Mom can’t cook to save her life.”

Rocío peeked into the hallway. “No, I can’t,” she said with just a faint smile. “I’m too busy intubating people to make sure there’s gourmet food on the table here. You’re welcome.” She seemed tired, wearing the sweatpants she favored at home after changing from her scrubs. “Come in, Mami. Maris is going to share her room with Yanneth, so you can have some space.”

“Are you sure this isn’t too much?” asked Saraí. “I know your work is very busy.” Rocío waved her hand, as if Saraí’s words were a pesky fly. “Will do us all good. I’m in and out at all hours, the girls are alone at home most of the day, and it’ll be better if you’re here.”

“Where’s Maris?” asked Saraí. “Has she had a chance to ride at all?” Maris had been an avid bicyclist, but maybe her teenage years dampened her enthusiasm. “Yeah, she goes at night,” said Yanneth. “She doesn’t like the traffic.”

“Riding at night with low visibility,” said Rocío. “As if I don’t have enough to worry about.”

Maris emerged from her room. “Are you guys talking about me?” she said. “Yeah, I ride at night just so that mom has to worry about me.” She opened the refrigerator and took out a large carton of orange juice. “Abuelita, do you want some?” she asked.

Saraí appreciated the gesture. She was not a regular guest at Rocío’s home. “Yes, thank you, mija,” she said. “So how’s school online?”

“It sucks,” Maris summarized pithily.

“Some teachers are better than others,” said Yanneth. “I really like Miss Ortega. She sends us awesome videos to watch and does all this small group work on Zoom.”

“Speaking of which…” said her mother, motioning with her head toward the girls’ rooms.

“Yeah, I should get back into it,” said Yanneth and skipped toward her room.

“God only knows what she does in there,” said Rocío. “Both of them. Online all day, and I don’t think it’s schoolwork. I’m so tired, Mami, I don’t have the energy to check on them.”

“Don’t you worry?” asked Saraí.

“Worry about what?” retorted Rocío.

“I don’t know,” said Saraí. “Bad people online. I hear things. You know, Maribel told me—”

“Maribel should keep her mouth shut,” said Rocío. “She’s always freaking you out over nothing.”

But it’s not over nothing, thought Saraí. She pursed her mouth, then took a breath. “How’s work?”

“Absolutely horrible,” said Rocío. “All the patients come in with the same diagnosis. And you know what, I don’t trust the masks. That’s what scares me, that I’ll get it and then I won’t be able to work, and what will happen to the girls.”

“That’s horrible,” Saraí agreed. She offered to make dinner before Rocío’s night shift. Rocío eyed her kitchen with apprehension, then nodded. Saraí opened the refrigerator. Rocío had gone shopping for basics, which was good; not a lot to use for a hot meal, but some sandwiches, perhaps.

“Look in the freezer,” said Rocío. “I got some things the girls can reheat when I’m not here. It’s not that bad.”

Saraí remained quiet. Rocío said, “I know what you’re thinking. But I can be a good mother without cooking here every night.”

“That’s not what I was thinking at all,” said Saraí. “I’m very proud of you.” Everything between them was so prickly. David’s mother once lent her a book called You’re Wearing That? by a linguist. Saraí usually preferred reading in Spanish, but for that book she made an exception. I could’ve written that book about Rocío and me, she thought.

Anyway, who was she to judge? She cooked for her kids every day and it wasn’t enough to keep Chris home, safe.

She must have allowed a pained expression to cross her face, because Rocío said, “I’m sorry, Mami. Let’s let it go.”

Saraí nodded.

Dinner was served and the girls emerged from their laptops. Yanneth ate voraciously and asked questions about recipes; Maris played with her food a bit, lost in thought. Rocío got up from the dinner table, heading to the closet to get clean scrubs and pack an overnight bag. Maris helped Saraí take her bag to Yanneth’s room.

Rocío departed with a few requests from the girls—“and don’t let your abuela do this for you”—and kisses on their foreheads. Saraí sat in Yanneth’s room, lost in thought.

She missed Chris. Even toward the end, when he was defiant, opting more and more for whatever life he was living, she felt a warm connection to him that was harder with Rocío; she loved them both, but Chris was more like her and easier for her to understand. Rocío was a bit more like Alejandro—taciturn, efficient, attentive to her own counsel. Chris couldn’t help but reveal his innermost concerns, even when he tried to cover his new, secretive life. Ah, what she would give—but this was sending her down the pattern that the grief counselor said so many time was treading water. Accept, accept, accept. Chris is gone, gone, gone. The familiar pain returned, like a heavy stone sinking into a deep vat of water. Gone, gone, gone.

“Abuelita,” said Yanneth, “what’s up? You’re so quiet.”

“Just thinking,” said Saraí.

“About Uncle Chris?” asked Yanneth. This surprised Saraí. She could not imagine Rocío talking about Chris with the girls.

“I sometimes get a little bit sad,” said Saraí. She could tell that her honesty touched the girl. “Now, what would you girls like to do?”

“Let’s watch something together,” Maris suggested. They ushered Saraí to the couch, each girl sitting on her side, and brought Maris’s laptop. They quickly settled on something—some new sacchariny tale of high school and boys—and clicked on the title. Save for passing commentary about outfits or the music, they were engrossed in the movie. Saraí allowed her thoughts to ramble through her mind, cloudlike. It was good to be around the girls; she felt better being with other people, with young people. She had lost their uncle when he was not much older than than his nieces were now. She allowed her sorrow to soften, breathing the scent of the girls’ shampoo and letting her memories come and go.

Shelter In Place, Ch. 4

shelter in place



All around the city, plastic bags rustled in thousands of kitchens. Plastic lids were pulled off hot soup; cartons of steamed rice were unpacked; thousands of teeth bit into soy sauce packets; thousands of hands held up hefty sandwiches, fished fries from bags, sprinkled chili flakes on freshly unveiled pizzas. The city sat down to lunch.

The app—efficient! Immaculate! Ahead of its time!—was silent, and John decided to check out for a couple of hours before the evening rush. He drove home, dug the remote out of the scooter’s front compartment, and opened his garage door. There it was, in all its glory—his TRX set from ten years ago, still in pristine, untouched condition, hanging from his garage ceiling.

John parked the scooter, dismounted, took off his gear, and grabbed the handles. The incline pushups were harder than he remembered from ten years and thirty pounds ago. All around him, self-styled influencers (he detested that word) implored their followers to seize the day, to view this “special time,” euphemism of the year, as a springboard for self-improvement. And why not? The deliveries built character, and perhaps he could have the muscles to go with.

His phone buzzed in his pocket. A text from Fabian: Hi dad wanna chat, never a question mark or a comma to be found. Rejoicing at the excuse to abandon his workout, John entered the house, sat in front of his computer, and logged on to Google Hangouts.

“Hi, Dad,” said Fabian, waving at him from the screen.

“Hi, Scoot,” said John, buoyed by the sight of his son’s face. “How was today?”

“Meh,” shrugged Fabian. “More emails and emails. Everything has a different password and some teachers still can’t use Zoom. My history teacher, Miss Ortega, she kicks ass, though. We got to watch a video about San Francisco in the 1970s.”

“Complete with the murders in City Hall, mind you,” Ceci’s voice rang from the kitchen. “As if these kids don’t have enough nightmares to deal with.”

“It’s fine, mom,” said Fabian, adding quietly for John’s benefit, “she thinks I don’t know about murders, but I just watched Dark Heart and it was awesome.”

“I heard that,” chimed in Ceci. “You and him both with these murder shows. What’s the appeal? Life isn’t hard enough for you?”

“But life is like this, Mom,” said Fabian. “Dad, a lot of these are based on real cases.”

“It’s true, Ceci,” said John. “I mean, only today I delivered a meal to this lady who seemed really sad and afraid.”

“Like, murder afraid?” asked Fabian.

“I don’t know, Scoot,” replied John. “She was wearing a mask. But it gave me a bad feeling to look at her. Think of all these poor people at home. God only knows what’s going on in there.”

“Yeah, like, with quarantine, you could be dead for weeks and no one would know,” said Fabian. “I read about this woman who was dead at home for three weeks and when the police came in, because the neighbors reported the smell, you see, she was eaten up by her cats.”

“Charming,” said Ceci. “John, how’s riding around doing deliveries?”

“It’s actually fine,” said John. “I get to see the city; I have some regulars already. It’s nice to be outside.” Neither of them mentioned the possibility that this could become John’s vocation. The rumors from college colleagues were not pretty, an honest day’s work was an honest day’s work, and John pushed the topic deeper into the recesses of his mind.

After ending the call with Fabian, John thought again of Phoenix Williams. That woman did not look like a phoenix to him, and for some reason, the plausible caregiving story did not seem right to him. He decided he would drive by the house again on his way to deliver dinners, but the app intervened by sending him all the way to Noe Valley with artisan burritos. The next four hours were a blur; restaurateurs’ eyes blurred into customers’ smiles, pizza boxes blurred into gyros Styrofoam containers, and there was even an earlyish cocktail delivery that tried his nerves as he swerved up O’Shaugnessy, praying not to spill anything. It was only around 11pm that he could swing by Persia again, and it was then that he remembered what had bothered him the whole time.

The woman in the window had not worn a mask before she got to the door. The vague movement he saw at lunchtime was a hasty effort to put on a mask before he saw her. And since she didn’t open the door, why did she put on the mask?

Was there something she didn’t want him to see?

John parked across the street, walked up to the house, rang the bell and stepped back down, looking at the window. There was no motion in the window for a moment, and then a man, about John’s age, opened the window. “How can I help?”

“I’m the delivery guy from lunch before,” said John. “There was some confusion at FoodFairy and we wanted to make sure that—” he pretended to look at his phone—“Phoenix got the correct delivery?”

“I’m Phoenix,” said the man. “I think everything was fine at lunch; it was our regular order. Allison, did all the food come okay at lunch?”

The woman from lunch—unmasked–stepped up to the window. “Yes, everything was fine, thank you,” she said. The man put his arm around her and closed the window. Yet just before she turned away, John noticed a nasty bruise around her mouth.

He walked toward his scooter and saw a masked neighbor with two children, drawing in chalk on the sidewalk. An idea occurred to him. He walked over to the children, staying within six feet of them, and called out: “Can I borrow some chalk?”

“Sure,” said the neighbor, “but just one. Turns out they are on backorder on Amazon now—can you believe it?”

John replied that indeed, he could, and picked up the chalk. His first instinct was to write a message for Allison on the sidewalk, but it was quickly followed by a realization of the foolishness of his plan. Instead, he drew a line—he hoped it would suggest a road, and two scooters: one upright, carrying a box, and the other upside down. He wrote the word “or” between them and added a question mark, and then casually dropped the chalk. With some luck, Phoenix would think it a child’s scribble and ignore it. Or, as usual, the whole thing was in John’s head, and all was well, and none of this was his business, anyway.

As he mounted the scooter, he felt a buzz in his pocket. He extracted his phone and saw that the app had sent him messages for a few minutes. He hopped on the scooter and headed to Thai House on Divisadero.  


When John was done for the night—other nameless, faceless people on scooters, bikes, and skates, would take his place—he felt exhausted. His last delivery left him close enough to Park Presidio; he took the road into Golden Gate Park. A large, luminous full moon hung above his head. The fresh night air filled him with nostalgia; he thought about the park in better days, when San Franciscans flooded it on weekends to go to the de Young, take a boat on Stow Lake, or go skating. He wondered about the tent encampments that would sometimes line the park, now nowhere to be seen; the Tenderloin was teeming with people without hope or options, but the park seemed empty.

He headed back home, taking a short detour to Persia. It was late, and people’s trash, recycle, and compost bins lined the street like a uniform. Phoenix and Allison’s bins were there, standing in line, just near John’s drawing.

He slowed down. It was hard to see, even with the full moon. The chalk was gone. So was the upright scooter from his drawing. The upside-down scooter was still there—but what was it?

It seemed like the scooter now had a rider. It was a person with long hair—a woman?—and a sad face, her arms reaching out as if saying, “help!” It was quite a crude drawing, which could well have been added by the neighborhood children. The whole thing probably had a benign explanation, which would come to him in the morning. Obsessing again. That, and all this driving. It couldn’t be good for him.

Shelter In Place, Ch. 3

shelter in place



For the third night in a row, Caleb awoke perturbed from a disturbing dream: dozens of hands laid upon his head, some caressing, some gently tousling his curls, and an incessant humming, like the buzzing sounds of a busy beehive, rising all around him. The sensations and sounds took a few moments to fade. Then he sat up upon his cardboard mattress and took in the scenery.

It was still early and the park was enveloped in misty fog. The grass sparkled with droplets of water and the tree leaves above him glistened in the soft light. Farther in the distance, through the mist, he saw shapes suggesting other people, perhaps bundled in clothes or blankets.

Caleb stepped behind a tree to relieve himself, then felt a pang of hunger. He still had a couple of twenty-dollar bills he filched out of Amanda’s wallet before leaving; he wondered how far he could get them to stretch.

Motivated by hunger and some curiosity about his new surroundings, he crossed the street and started walking down Haight street. The shops—hair salons, old car washes, sixties memorabilia joints—were still closed. He found a small grocery store and bought a pack of cigarettes, a stale pastry and a can of coke. Outside, he sat on the sidewalk and quietly drank and ate.

He arrived in town three days ago in the early afternoon on a Greyhound bus he caught the previous night in Colorado Springs. The bus was full, but everyone minded their own business, which suited him fine. His first two nights were spent around City Hall, sleeping in doorways on a faded cardboard ad that read “Willie Brown.” But the noise and traffic disquieted him and he longed for somewhere quieter. Another guy told him about the park, and he ended up here, finding a huge appliance cardboard box in one of the carwash lots and using it as his bedding.

Done with his pastry, he strolled back to the park, still sipping from his can. The people in the park shed their blankets and coats and started to look more like people, but nothing like the people who surrounded him back in Colorado Springs. For folks in dire straits, they seemed quite groomed, their cultivated appearance evincing neglect and care in equal measures: army boots, metallic chains, army jackets, leather vests, torn jeans. Caleb noticed that a few had large dogs, which made him uneasy.

He was rattled by a hand touching his shoulder. “Can you spare one?” The woman, probably in her thirties but who knew, wore her hair in a long braid and was bundled in one of those South American sweaters. She gestured toward his pocket. Caleb took out the cigarette pack and handed her one. She took a lighter out of her pocket, flicked it on, and lit her cigarette. She gestured at Caleb, as if asking whether he wanted her to light one for him, too. He shook his head.

“You’re new, right?” she asked. Caleb didn’t answer.

“You’ll be fine. The winters are not as bad as in Minnesota or whatever. It’s been pretty dry the last coupla weeks. And the cops aren’t on our case with Matrix like they were last year.”

Still a bit groggy despite the coke and the pastry, Caleb listened as she explained. The public libraries were open and were warm inside; the grocery store left out some fruit when it closed for the night; best not to pet other people’s dogs (no risk of that, Caleb thought.) Other people around them struck conversations with each other. Caleb was not in a friend-making mood, but then again, he seldom was. What was it the social worker had said to Amanda when they first met? “Yeah, he’s kind of a loner,” she explained, “but eventually he opens up. It just takes time, right?”

At that first meeting, Amanda did most of the talking. Caleb knew he should make a good impression, be the sweetest kitten at the shelter, but could not bring himself to talk about it all. He let Amanda tell him that she lived with her husband Steve here in town, that Steve worked at Focus on the Family and Amanda worked the reception desk at their church, and that on weekends they hiked the wooden trails near the stream around the Air Force Academy before going to the Sunday morning service and church activities. They already had three adopted children close to his age from the Colorado Springs welfare system; at 11, he would be their third-oldest kid if he wanted to live with them. They all had dinner together every night and went to the same Christian school.

The loner streak did not dissipate. Talking, particularly about what happened before he came to live with them, was hard, not because Steve and Amanda weren’t nice. They were told the basic story, of course; with mom’s boyfriend in prison for it and a big part of it in his group home file, the obviously upsetting bits couldn’t be avoided. But he had the uneasy feeling that, even though they both said they knew it hadn’t been his fault, he felt Steve’s eyes resting on him sometimes with unspoken suspicion. Jesus said, Steve quoted, love the sinner and hate the sin, but where did one end and the other begin? Tarnished with more than his fair share of original sins, Caleb couldn’t possibly live up to Jesus, who was the top priority and the most loved at home, always. Before every meal, at church, of course, and even at Caleb’s junior high graduation, where the principal told the audience to refrain from applauding for their children, because all achievement bowed before Christ. There were a few claps here and there, Caleb remembered; not all the parents were sufficiently devout and self-restrained, but Steve and Amanda sat in complete silence until the potluck.

A loud siren interrupted Caleb’s thoughts. Another joined, and another, and soon the birdsong from the park was completely drowned by a cacophony of sirens. Police cars screeched in front of the people on Stanyan. A bullhorn peeked from a window: “Police!” (no shit, Sherlock, Caleb thought.) “We are breaking down this camp. You are distrupting the neighborhood and must disperse.”

An outburst of shouting came in response. “Where the fuck do you want us to go?” yelled the woman with the long braid. “What is this, Matrix? Fucking Willie Brown. Doesn’t make a difference who’s Mayor, you get hunted down.” “I ain’t moving nowhere. I’m done running away from you assholes.” “I got ten citations for just living. Ten! You just try and get me off.” The police officers, undeterred, emerged from the cars. Caleb had certainly seen his share of cops, and he had no love for them, but never so many. An officer grabbed the long-braided woman by the hand and dragged her away. Before Caleb could protest, he felt his hands pulled behind his back and a push forward. Within seconds he was in a police car, seated between two other people—the long-braided woman and a large man in his fifties. The man’s eyes were damp, and he muttered: “assholes. No heart. Where’s my dog gonna go?”

“Animal control,” said the officer from the passenger’s seat. “If you can’t put a roof over your head, you got no business owning a dog anyway.”

“You assholes,” sobbed the man. “You assholes.”

Surrounded on all sides—his least-preferable way to be—Caleb could not see well out of the window. He was wondering where the officers would deposit them. “Holy shit!” said the long-braided woman. “They’re taking us to 850 Bryant.”

“Shit is on,” said the large man. “There’s gonna be news crews and shit. Didn’t he get elected by promising people he wasn’t going to do this shit?”

The car stopped. The two officers got out of the car, opening the back doors and letting Caleb and the others out. In front of him was an enormous, rectangular building with small windows. The officers ushered Caleb and the others in a long row through the corridor.

“The court opens at nine, which is soon enough,” said the officers. “Whoever makes bail then, can leave; otherwise, it’s a traffic ticket.”

“Another ticket?” said someone Caleb hadn’t seen before. “Does Willie Brown have ideas on how I’m going to pay my ticket?”

“How about getting a job?” asked another officer. “I’m tired of sweeping the streets every day. Or here’s an idea, why don’t you go back to where you came from and live there?”

“I’m from here,” said the long-braided woman. “Born and raised. Where should I go, huh?”

“Save it for the judge,” said the officer. Caleb and the others were shown into a long corridor with cell doors. It was the biggest jail Caleb had ever seen, and he’d seen quite a few.

The cell offered him no respite. Six of them locked together, four of whom had a penchant for talking—just like the incessant noise at Amanda and Steve’s, at the group home, and before. Caleb felt the familiar suffocation rise in his throat, just like it did the evening after his adoption went through. For the hearing itself he wore a button-down shirt and tie, which itched around his neck. Amanda and Steve and the other kids were there, all immaculately dressed, and the judge congratulated them for joining a solid Christian family. “At a time like this, when family values are at risk from all directions,” said the judge, and Caleb thought he was looking straight at him, “it is heartwarming to see God-loving people doing the right thing, saving these kids, and offering them a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”

From the hearing, they headed off to the church, where dozens of helping hands put together a party to celebrate the adoption. Pastor Ethan took the microphone, blessed Caleb as a new brother in Christ, and invited the congregation to lay hands on him in blessing. Before Caleb could protest, he was surrounded by people—some he knew, many he didn’t—and felt the weight of a clammy, cold hand on his forehead. Another hand followed on the crown of his head, and soon, there were fingers in his hair, hands on his back, hands on his shoulder; the garlicky breath of a parishioner invaded his perception, sickening him. “Praise Jesus!” Said Pastor Ethan. “Praise Jesus!” called out the parishioners. Caleb, for whom the hands called the memory of other unwelcome hands, clammed up, shut his eyes, and waited for it all to end.

The cell door opened, rattling Caleb. Two officers he had not seen before, wearing a different uniform, motioned for Caleb and his cellmates to follow them. They walked down a long corridor and up a tall staircase, ending in a wider hallway with a shiny floor. Caleb was led into a courtroom, where he sat in silence, spoken to by no one.

Looking behind him, he saw rows of other people, some of whom he recognized from the park. Behind them was a strikingly good looking man in his forties in a short haircut and a crisp gray blazer over a blue collared shirt and jeans. The man looked straight at Caleb and smiled. Not only with his mouth, with the corner of his eyes. Caleb’s eyes opened wide. The man quietly nodded at him.

“All Rise!” announced the clerk and a slender woman in a bobbed haircut entered through a side door, wearing a black gown. The woman sat at the judge’s seat and they were all motioned to seat.

“Today we’re looking at loitering, right?” said the woman at the clerk. “It’s as if Frank Jordan never lost the election.” The clerk chuckled. The woman lifted her eyes and took them all in, then raised her eyebrows in surprise.

“Mr. Ellstrom?” she asked. “What are you doing here?”

The man in the gray blazer rose. “Your honor,” he said, “Perhaps I can help lighten the load here abit. I will bail out—” he turned to Caleb quickly and whispered, “what’s your name?” Caleb mumbled his name, “Caleb here, and I am capable of offering him housing and a job.”

“That’s remarkable, Mr. Ellstrom,” said the judge. “Will you post bail?”

“Certainly,” said the man. The judge motioned at Caleb. He approached the bench.

“Caleb, this is your lucky day,” said the judge. “Mr. Ellstrom here will take good care of you. Do you want to take this chance today?”

“Yes,” said Caleb. He cleared his throat; he had not heard the sound of his own voice in days. “Yes, your honor, thank you.”

The judge motioned him away and Ellstrom gestured at him, goodnaturedly, to come along. Spellbound, Caleb followed him outside the courtroom.

“Have you had anything to eat this morning?” said Ellstrom. Caleb nodded. “Enough?” asked Ellstrom. Caleb did not reply. “Well, I’m hungry. I’m gonna go for some eggs. Will you come with me?” Caleb nodded.

They exited the building, turned right, and crossed the street. Ellstrom pointed at a small joint. “It doesn’t look like much, but their breakfasts are really good,” he said. They stepped in and took a small formica table. “Hello, Mr. Ellstrom,” said a waiter, “it’s good to see you again.”

“Hi, Clark,” said Ellstrom. “Can you make us a couple plates of eggs and home fries? Some toast, too?”

“Sure thing,” said Clark and disappeared into the little kitchen.

“Look, Mr. Ellstrom,” said Caleb. “I can’t thank you enough, but—”

“Call me Neil,” said Ellstrom. “It’s no big deal, really. How long have you been in town?”

“Three days,” said Caleb.

“Do you have any construction experience?”

“Some,” said Caleb. This was not a lie. Steve took the boys to volunteer at Habitat for Humanity sometimes, and Caleb learned to pour cement and some of the basics of laying pipes.

“That’s great,” said Neil. “I could always use someone on my crew.” The eggs arrived, warm and fragrant, with some crispy hot fries and a buttered toast. Caleb looked at the plates with hesitation, but as Neil smiled and said, “dig in,” he started devouring his meal.

“Wow, you’re inhaling it,” laughed Neil. Caleb stopped eating, feeling self-conscious. “On my crew, you get a hot meal every morning. Folks work harder and better if they’ve had something solid to eat before work.”

Caleb looked at Neil’s smiling face and suddenly realized they had not said grace before the meal.

Shelter In Place, Ch. 2

shelter in place



Saraí would not have remembered it was a Tuesday had it not been for the familiar ringtone on her phone. Yanneth’s radiant smile on her screen, which flashed weekly as the phone rang, pulled her out of a foggy daydream and she tapped the green circle.

“Hola, Yanneth?” she said.

“Abuelita,” replied Yanneth, “How are you?”

“I’m okay,” replied Saraí. “Just hanging out, resting. How are you girls and your Mami?”

“We’re doing fine,” said Yanneth. “I’m creating this new dance with my friends and we’re going to record ourselves doing it and do a group video. Maris is on the phone with her boyfriend all the time. Mami is going crazy trying to get her to do her homework.”

Saraí smiled. She knew children, and her own grandchildren sounded upbeat. This was a balm, a refuge, for her; childhood and youth could be laden with challenges, as she knew all too well. Rocío was a good mom, judging from how the kids turned out. This thought raised a familiar bad taste in her mouth, and she swept it out of her head, realizing her granddaughter was still talking.

“So do you?”

“Do I what?”

“Do you want to come?”

“Come where?”

“Come on, Abuelita, you weren’t listening! Come live with us for the shelter-in-place order!”

“Mi amor, I have my place right here at home. No need to worry.”

This was not entirely true. The experience of sitting at home doing nothing was new and unnerving. God knew she’d been through plenty, by herself, not much older than Maris and Yanneth, and then with Alejandro and of course with Chris, but the fear she had felt then was acute, an awakening. Even when she felt frozen, she would then be propelled to act. Doing, working, acting, that was how she took on fear—an unwelcome but familiar guest. This newcomer, though, was of an entirely different quality. It numbed, it made the limbs go heavy, it blurred the hours of the day into tedium, punctuated only by vivid dreams of things forgotten and uneasy, abrupt awakenings.

Her friend Maribel had said something interesting. She was talking to her cousin Josué, who got into all kinds of New Age babble, The Secret, Pay It Forward, that sort of thing. Amidst the stream of snake-oil virus cure posts and memes with angels on them, Maribel said, he had sent her this piece about how this crisis was an opportunity to move from “doing” to “being.” “Being” is for people to lazy to “do,” Saraí thought. But lately she wondered whether Josué was right after all. Because living in her head after so many years of work, work, work—with her own children, with the children of others—was quiet. And quiet was not a good thing. It made room for things to sneak in, things best left in the past where they belonged. Being bombarded with warnings about belonging to a “high-risk population” so shortly after her sixtieth birthday was also discomfiting. But mostly it was the shapeless fog that enveloped her days that made the experience so eerie.

“But Mami wants you to come,” pleaded Yanneth.

This was also unlikely. Rocío barely spoke to Saraí, partly because they were both so busy with their respective jobs, and partly because of the obvious. They would exchange a few words on the phone or a text once every couple of weeks, of course, and Yanneth always called on Tuesdays, serving as an intermediary of sorts, but it was not the kind of relationship that would make the prospect of living together in close quarters something to look forward to. “Are you sure?” asked Saraí.

She heard some commotion on the other side of the line. Rocío’s muffled voice saying, “why do I need to talk to her? You talk to her,” followed by Yanneth’s, “but she wants to talk to YOU.”

“Hi, Mamá,” said Rocío.

“Hola, Rocío,” replied Saraí. “How are you doing?”

“It’s okay,” sighed Rocío. “Work is hard. You would not believe the things I see every day.”

Tell me, Saraí pleaded in her heart. Like you used to tell me when you were little, running to me every time a schoolgirl intrigue, some boy drama, anything unmoored you. But Rocío moved on. “I know you must be bored stiff after getting fired from that job, and, with me working full time, I know the girls would love having you around.”

“I wasn’t fired,” corrected Saraí. “David got into preschool. I couldn’t be his nanny forever.”

“Whatever,” said Rocío, an expression she learned from the valley girl movies of her teenage years. “You can have Yanneth’s room; she’s going to room with Maris. It’ll work out just fine.”

Saraí thought about it. For the last three years, her day revolved around David. She showed up at his home at 8:00am, right on time every time, just as David’s mom left home dressed to the nines to go to her job. David was always thrilled to see her, his bright eyes sparkling and his smile broadening, toddling over to her and squealing: “Tía Sara! Tía Sara!” They would play at home for a while, eat the breakfast his mom left him, and then go to the playground, where David amazed Saraí by climbing higher and higher and daringly using the tall slide. Rocío and Chris were not like this when they were little, she would think, and then remember that Chris did find some derring-do, but that would be much later.

When David turned three, his mom started looking for preschools. Saraí knew her days with him were numbered and felt the familiar sadness at saying goodbye. She had worked with about fifteen families, all different, and every time she moved on, her profound love for the child stayed with her. Some of her former employers stayed in touch; the kids would be friendly, but generally moved on with their lives. It was only several years into her work as a nanny that she realized that her love for the child—whether reciprocated or not—was her gift to take along, to keep her smiling through the uncertainties of future employment and the adjustment to a new family and a new routine.

As it turned out, David was accepted to preschool in early March. Saraí stayed on to help with the transition; he had not yet made any friends at the new place and was wary of the teachers and the noise during outside playtime. The new teachers did not speak Spanish and Saraí, like David’s mom, was worried that he would forget their Spanish conversations. When the shelter-in-place order descended, Saraí had been out of work for two weeks and living off the severance payments from David’s family. She had not found a new family ahead of time, not for want of effort, and, even though the financial situation worried her, she was happy not to be beholden to new employers at a time like this.

Maribel and Saraí talked about domestic workers and nannies in Brazil who were forced to live with their employers in quarantine or lose their jobs. Maribel had heard that the first woman to die of the virus in Brazil was a domestic worker, whose white employer, just back from vacation, demanded that she return to work as usual and hid from her that she was experiencing symptoms. The boss recovered; the worker died. The heart had no room to contain all this suffering, and if she was going to, she had plenty of her own to conjure. She could not afford sinking into this malaise that was reaching its tentacles into her daily routine.

“Okay,” she said, “I can come.”

Saraí was a light traveler, and looking around her apartment she couldn’t think of anything she would want or need with her. Then she packed some toiletries and essentials in a bag and some indulgences she thought Rocío might not have: the little coffee machine she received as a gift in a few years ago from the parents of one of her charges, the nice tortilla press, her favorite house slippers. Just about to step out of the house, she realized that public transportation might not run as frequently as she was used to.

She pulled out her phone. Maris had taught her to look up Muni times. NextMuni was working and reporting a bus arriving in ten minutes. Saraí stayed at home until the last possible minute, then headed to the station.

Boarding the bus alarmed her. She was used to drivers wearing masks on occasion, but the emptiness of the bus and the driver’s surprise at seeing her were unusual. She sat in the middle, alone, gazing at the vacant seats around her and at the boarded windows facing the street. Her daily commute to David’s house offered her a daily spectacle of the tragicomedy of San Francisco: people making speeches, chatting, bickering on board. Now, the recorded voice announcing the stations rang tinny and awkward in the empty bus, a ghost ship.

Saraí got off the bus a block away from Rocío’s house. Her heart was still pounding from the ride. She was relieved to feel her feet on the ground, even though the hollow sound of her soles on the pavement disoriented her. She took a breath, stepped up to the landing, and rang the doorbell with her elbow.

Shelter In Place: A Quarantine Mystery Novel, Chapter 1

shelter in place


It was only after he was halfway to the restaurant that John realized he had forgotten his mask. The string he tied around his middle finger to remind him was still tightly looped around the finger, untethered from the memory it was supposed to pull. The deliveries themselves would be fine; John wore a helmet and could wear it on his deliveries with the face shield down. What the clients would think, and then tweet about, tagging his boss, was a different story.

Not that John had developed fervent loyalty to FoodFairy in the two weeks since he had joined their august ranks; It wouldn’t have been his first choice of a career under any other circumstances. But after a couple of weeks at home, no prospects for the near or far future, and a growing stream of worrisome stories on the Chronicle of Higher Education, he could not sit on his hands hoping for some miracle to happen. The college was closed; his course wrapped up in the previous quarter; and none of his students, who were not exactly living in the lap of luxury, could be expected to angrily march across campus, surrounding the empty administration building (the Dean sent him the proverbial pink slip from the comfort of his St. Francis Wood mansion) demanding that his adjunct contract be renewed.

Ceci FaceTimed him to figure out what to do. They quietly and quickly went through a list of his skills. The problem was that everything he knew how to do—tutor people for their SATs, house-sit people’s pets, to mention just two–was not in particular demand because of quarantine. It was actually Fabian who came up with the delivery idea. “You ride every day anyway and you like it,” he said, “and this way you get to hang out outside, instead of getting bored at home.” The inflection on the last three words was perhaps a bit pointed, probably at Ceci; John regretted that they were not all together at this time, then remembered that his new job required special precautions and was grateful not to put them at risk. He and Ceci were much better friends than spouses, anyway, and Fabian was old enough that he didn’t need his hand held through the crisis. He was a much cooler boy than John had been at his age, and remarkably well adjusted; he could surf, skate, and play guitar, and even though he had lots of friends, they hadn’t turned him mean or cynical. Yet.

Given the alarmingly rising unemployment rate, and John’s apprehension about “being a good fit,” whatever that meant, he was surprised to have nailed the FoodFairy gig right away. The folks he worked with were a nice bunch, though he hardly saw them; most of his day was spent moving around the empty city, ambulating through quiet streets and boarded stores, entering the belly of a different beast every time to retrieve food, and heading off to deliver it to invisible, anxious customers.

The app—proprietary! Disruptive! Innovative! Designed to take the food delivery business to the next level!—was almost unnecessary for him, as he knew the city quite well. He lived in Mission Terrace, which looked just like the Mission in its pre-gentrification time. John considered himself a gentle, kind gentrifier, and quelled the social critic in his belly. After the divorce, which happened when Fabian was little and John was fairly gainfully employed, he managed to outmaneuver the young, shiny South Bay tech workers and land a small rent-protected house, paying a recession-set monthly rent that his adjunct salary from three different places barely covered. The neighbors were lovely; a million small businesses, including his favorite Salvadorean resturant, lined Mission Street within two blocks of his home. Best of all, within a comfortable trip on Ocean Avenue, over near Ocean Beach, lived Ceci and Fabian; Fabian, who was now thirteen, sometimes rode his skateboard between his parents’ homes.

The restaurants were still sprinkled throughout the city, though many closed their brick-and-mortar facades and operated from back kitchens. The food was the same; menus had shrunk, but people were ordering in a frenzy, and favorites were a comfort. Lots of pizza, lots of dumplings, lots of fries—the smells enveloped him even though the food was safely nestled behind his back—and lots of Indian curries. When he was off his shift, John would read articles about people rediscovering cooking and baking and making staples from scratch, but given how busy his day was, he couldn’t fathom who was doing it. What really stunned him was the newly discovered penchant for delivered homemade cocktails; John detested those deliveries, feeling like the princess and the pea as he drove gingerly up and down hilly Dolores street hoping not to spill any of the precious ingredients, separately packed for the customers to mix at home for an added sense of agency. He chuckled about it now, as he opened his throttle, ascended Monterey, and appreciated the glorious day and the strange times that placed him outdoors for much of his workday.

John parked the scooter and backed it neatly into the curb in front of Dumpling King. Keeping his helmet on, so as not to alarm the staff, he walked in. Millie, the owner’s daughter, raised her eyes toward him; he could not discern a smile under her mask. He said, “How ya doin?”

“Crazy today,” Millie said. “But these two, every day at noon, like clockwork. Are you here for the same ones?”

“Yeah,” said John. “The two regulars, the one for Persia and the one for Baden.”

Millie picked up two plastic bags emblazoned with Thank You Thank You Thank You in glaring red letters. She quickly checked them both (to make sure there was soy sauce and vinegar, John assumed) and handed them to him. She lifted the one in her left hand a bit. “This is the one for Persia: the two orders of bao, Mongolian beef, dried green beans with mock chicken, rice. The egg rolls and chow mein are for Baden.”

“How do these people not get sick of eating the exact same thing every single day?” asked John.

“Beats me,” said Millie. “But they are keeping us in business. We’re down to just the family cooking now. As far as I’m concerned, they can go on ordering the same dishes for the rest of their days.”

John nodded, smiled—she probably couldn’t see his smile through the chin guard—and carried the food outside. He opened the Velcro attachment to the cooler and placed both bags, side by side, in it. The bigger lunch rush wasn’t happening yet, or maybe the boss did a less equitable division of labor. Tip-wise, it didn’t matter, he remembered as he slid the key into the ignition; the boss decided early on that, as long as this was going on, they would share in the tips. The app—miraculous! Customizable! Considerate!—did the calculus automatically before they got paid. This was advertised to customers looking to assuage their guilt as “taking care of our community of committed drivers.”

John flipped on the kill switch, squeezed the brakes, and pressed the start button. The scooter responded with a pleasant hum. He pushed any thoughts of minimum wage, exploitation, and the growing sensation of bitterness further into his belly and turned into the road. First stop would be Baden. The new protocol required them to leave the food outdoors and text the owners. Some delivery workers rang the bell; in the first two or three days, John did that instinctively, then considered that, even with his gloves on, this could unnerve customers. He parked the scooter under the house, placed the bag in front of the door and, as he expected, was greeted by no one. He texted the number listed on the app–though the boss encouraged it, he didn’t have it in him to add a food emoji or even the obligatory exclamation mark–and headed back to the road.

The next stop was the house on Persia. Here, too, he had never seen a soul, and never received a reply to his text. Ascending the obligatory San Francisco steps, he thought he’d seen movement in the bay window—a flicker of a face. The door had a stained-glass feature, perhaps an orchid, and through the colorful, textured panels he could discern a figure moving in the living room. He whipped out his phone, and within a second realized the text would not be necessary, because through the stained-glass flower he saw the face of a woman.

Half a face, actually—the woman was wearing a mask inside the house. Her eyes were dark and large, and they seemed to communicate something—sadness?—as a reply to what was likely John’s puzzled expression. To each their own, he thought; battles were raging on his neighborhood’s social media page about the appropriate etiquette for mask wearing, running, jogging, shopping, you name it. Boomers bickered with millennials; millennials bickered with boomers; and Gen-Xers like John read it all, nauseated and despaired and unable to tear themselves from it. Then the obvious explanation hit him: there was likely a sick person inside the house. The woman was taking a break from some harrowing caregiving duty to eat her lunch. She said something, muffled by the door and her mask. It took John a moment to process it as “thank you.” He smiled, said, “you’re welcome,” and walked down the stairs. His phone pinged; time to pick up chicken korma from the Mission and head over to Bernal.

As he drove up San Jose, the darkness of the tunnel and the danger of Muni cables called his attention. But as he emerged from the tunnel and rode into Guerrero, the image of the woman floated back to his mind. The amount of food could have a simple explanation: there was more than one healthy person in the house clamoring for dumplings and main courses. But he was surprised that someone caring for a sick relative did not order plain soup. The reports he’d heard were that severely ill people could not manage a thing and lost their appetite; yes, that could be it. Yet there was something about the woman’s expression that flew in the face of this explanation. Something about the sadness in her eyes—not sadness, exactly. Fear, maybe? He turned right into 18th Street, moved into the curb and killed the switch. Looking at his phone, he saw that the order was made by a Phoenix Williams. Peculiar name, though by all means not the only peculiar name in San Francisco. John shrugged and walked toward the restaurant, allowing the fog in his brain to gently settle over anything that was not the next delivery.