“Dad, stop being lame and go to the store!”
“Alex, we’re doing fine.”
He tried to pat his son’s shoulder, but the boy dodged his hand.
“No, we’re not,” said Marcy, his wife. “Just go to the damn store.”
He walked away. They would adapt.
Later, Marcy came storming into the kitchen, waving a square of coloured paper.
“You chopped up my Italian Vogue and expect me to wipe my butt with Cara Delevingne? Look at her! She’s had enough of everyone’s shit.”
She waved the square in Alan’s face.
“Go to the store because I am not wiping my butt with Cara Delevingne.”
“I am!” said Alex, snatching it and running off.
“What’s next, Alan? The bible? Go to the store. It’s been two days. I’ve got paper cuts where I shouldn’t and it’s harming Alex.”
Alan coughed loudly.
“There’s sick people out there.”
“Alan, we need toilet paper. Are you not capable of buying toilet paper?”
Alex came back into the kitchen.
“Cara Delevingne blocked the toilet,” he said.
Marcy glared at Alan.
“Fine,” he said. “You unclog the toilet, I’ll go to the store, catch corona virus and die.”
“Thank you. And the cat needs food.”
His throat started to itch when he saw the Safeway’s packed carpark.
Inside, people were keeping their distance. He held his breath whenever he passed another shopper and when he leaned in between two old women to grab a tray of tuna cat food.
The toilet paper aisle was empty of toilet paper but crowded with people. A store manager appeared with a megaphone.
“Disperse! There is no more toilet paper today.”
People called him names. A big guy in a lumberjack shirt in front of Alan turned around. He had a paper mask over his nose and mouth and was holding up his phone.
“Someone just tweeted there’s toilet paper at Walmart,” he announced, perhaps to Alan, perhaps to the air.
“There’s toilet paper at Walmart!” yelled a woman. Everyone bolted, collecting Alan in the rush. He held his breath. Was that a cough on his neck? He was trapped in the pack trying to force its way to the doors. Afraid to inhale, unable to push away, he was swept along, his head pounding and chest throbbing. He resisted the urge to inhale. All sound receded, the lights dimmed, and he woke up on the floor, the big guy in the mask standing over him.
Alan nodded. He was a bit stunned, but nothing felt damaged, except his pride.
The guy was rubbing hand sanitiser between his hands. He flexed his fingers and then reached out to Alan.
“Let me help you up.”
Alan took the wet hand and was pulled onto his feet. The guy took a step back.
“The name’s Biff.”
“Alan. Thanks for that.”
“Take some of this. Can’t be too safe.”
Biff had the small bottle of hand sanitiser out, waiting for Alan to hold out a hand. After giving him a squirt, he sanitised his own hands again.
“Guess I’ll see you at Walmart. If the rats leave us anything.”
Alan remembered to pay for the cat food in his pocket, then headed to Walmart.
It was the same scene of empty aisles and angry shoppers. Biff was there and gave Alan a nod.
“There’s got to be toilet paper at Costco,” yelled an old lady.
“I’m not a member!” screamed a man.
Another stampede started. Alan escaped around the corner into the next aisle, followed by Biff.
“It’s a wild goose chase,” Biff said. “All the stores are out. But I told my little lady I wouldn’t return without at least a six pack. Your wife waiting for you to get back?”
Alan nodded. “And my son. We’ve been using magazine pages for two days.”
Biff was incredulous. “Magazines? You made your lady use magazines? Did you think about paper cuts?”
“We’re under lockdown! There’s a hundred cases locally. It’s more fatal in men. We’re putting ourselves in danger for toilet paper.”
Alan’s phone buzzed. It was a message from Marcy.
- I’m busting. You better be back soon.
Biff reached to scratch his chin but changed it to scratching his chest through his shirt.
“I know where to get us both toilet paper. A guy I know. You interested?”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah. Might not be cheap.”
“I don’t care about price. I can’t go home empty handed.”
As he followed Biff’s pickup through dingier and dingier streets Alan started to have second thoughts. Eventually the pickup pulled over alongside a stretch of empty land that was part of a stalled development. Across the road was a clapped-out house that escaped demolition. It had random window panes replaced with plywood, siding that was peeling, and a yard that was mostly dirt with a few withered trees along the driveway that ran beside the house.
Biff got out of his truck and walked over to Alan’s passenger window.
“He calls himself a prepper, but he’s a hoarder. I’m not sure he’ll co-operate, but it’s worth a try. Give me twenty and I’ll see what I can get you.”
As Alan handed over the money, without touching, he felt a wrenching in his guts. He was being ripped off. This was the con. This stranger in this empty street with no witnesses. First, he asks for twenty. Then he comes back and asks for a hundred. Then he gets mugged.
He watched Biff cross the street and go up the steps to the front door. He knocked. After a time the door opened an inch. Biff spoke, gesturing back towards the cars, showing the money. The door opened a little further, just enough for Biff to slide through the gap. The door closed again.
Alan waited. And waited. He considered driving off. Biff didn’t have his number. But he ran into him at Safeway. He might run into him again.
Another message from Marcy.
- Where are you? The turtle has reached its shoulders
Biff appeared empty handed. He walked back to Alan’s car and dropped the twenty on the passenger seat through the window.
“The bastard’s being stingy. Not even a single roll. But I saw it. He had to show it off. There’s stacks of it in the back room. More than one asshole can ever use.”
“It was a worth a try,” said Alan, reaching for the ignition. Marcy was going to be angry. Worse, she was going to be disappointed.
“Hold on there, buddy. I’m not going back to my lady empty handed.”
“There’s other supermarkets.”
“With empty shelves. There’s toilet paper here. And I’ve got a plan to get us some. If you’re up for it. You’re not afraid of dogs, are you?”
That’s how Alan found himself with his back to the side wall of the house while Biff knocked on the front door. Once he heard the front door open, Alan was running in a crouch to the back of the house and around the corner to the back door. It was unlocked.
What am I doing? Risking jail? For toilet paper?
Biff had been right. The place was stacked. Row upon row of toilet paper. He grabbed rolls and stuffed them up the front of his shirt as fast as he could. They were soft to the touch and very squeezable.
He was stopped by a rumble near the floor. There in the doorway was the thickest, ugliest pit bull Alan had ever seen.
The dog stepped closer. The rumble turned into a growl and teeth started to show. Alan threw a roll at the dog. It bounced off its nose. It didn’t blink. He pulled the foil tray of cat food out of his pocket and threw it in front of the dog. The dog stared down at it, then back at him. I should have opened it, he thought. Then the dog grabbed the tray, crunched it twice and swallowed it. A whistling sound came from its throat, its eyes crossed and it fell over on its side.
Alan ran out the back door and back around the house, holding the bottom of his shirt. He looked pregnant and twenty years overdue. He scooted past the windows and waited at the corner near the porch. He couldn’t hear any voices. He dashed across the street, around his car and into the back seat.
Biff came out and went straight back to his truck. Alan followed him to a service station, where he pulled in beside his pickup.
“12 rolls each! Nice work,” said Biff as Alan handed them over from window to window. “I’m knocking over a bank on Monday if you want in.”
He laughed at Alan’s face.
“Kidding! We should get these home to our ladies.”
Alan held out his hand. Biff reached out and shook it. Then he held out the bottle of hand sanitiser.
“Can’t be too careful,” he said, squeezing it into Alan’s hand.
“Oh my god,” said Marcy as he stepped into the kitchen with his arms full of toilet paper. “Where did you get all that?”
He stacked it neatly on the kitchen counter.
“I stole it from a hoarder.”
“I had to kill to get it.”
Alex picked up a roll and squeezed it.
“It’s the good stuff. Great job, Dad!”
“Only the best for my boy. And my lady,” he said, taking Marcy in his arms.
“Oh, honey! Now don’t go squeezing me.”