Oakland, California, 2020.
Computer scientist Adam cannot understand the widespread appeal of conspiracy theories popularized by the president. He decides to investigate one, QAnon, which turns out to have hidden connections to a White House intent on subverting the upcoming presidential election.
His wife Julia, who works at the ACLU, is terrified by the outbreak of the coronavirus and is drawn to the fake online cures Adam detests. Further threatened by the reappearance of a violent ex-boyfriend, Julia sees her life unraveling and resorts to desperate remedies.
JULIA PHONES HER MOTHER
Saturday was Julia’s favorite day of the week. It was not as leisurely as Sunday. But more fun things usually happened that day—like shopping for clothes or shoes (especially shoes). Or lunch out with friends. Even a movie if they could arrange a sitter for Liz.
Before she could indulge herself this particular Saturday she owed her mom a call. Pouring herself another cup of coffee that morning, she punched in the numbers.
“Hello?” a voice answered.
“It’s me, Mom. How’re things?”
“This morning my sciatica is bothering me a lot.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Are you doing all your exercises?”
“They’re too damn painful to do today. I took Advil, but it doesn’t seem to have made any difference. Walking is the worst. When I sit down I don’t feel it so much.”
“Have you talked to your physical therapist about it?”
“Some help she is. She’s not around weekends. Some people have it easy, if you ask me.”
She used that phrase frequently and it annoyed the hell out of Julia. It made her want to reply, “But I didn’t ask you.”
“Why don’t you call to make an appointment for Monday,” Julia asked.
“And be in pain all weekend?”
“An alternative is to go to urgent care and ask them to give you a stronger pain killer.”
“I’ve got a better idea. l’ll ask your father to go to Connected Cannabis and get me some THC.”
“Where’s he now?”
“Stuck in the bathroom with the paper.”
“Is he still sober enough to drive there?” Her dad had a serious drinking problem. He often had his first beer of the day with breakfast. By lunchtime he’d upgraded to whiskey. By mid-afternoon he was usually snoring in his chair in the den or outside on the deck. As a child Julia had learned to avoid him altogether in the evenings when he grew unpleasant and sometimes violent.
“I doubt he would pass the breathalyzer any time day or night,” Laura, Julia’s mother, said.
“Didn’t you say he joined AA a couple of weeks ago?”
“That’s right. And lost interest in a week. You know your father. Without a drink in his belly he can’t stand himself.”
“And with a drink in his belly I can’t stand him.”
Julia recollected some of the worst scenes from her childhood. Like when he chased both her mother and her out of the house shouting “Putas de mierda” and waving a kitchen knife in the air. That time he left them shivering in the rain for an hour before unlocking the door. Or when she had to spend half the night locked in the bathroom after he’d tried to thrash her with his belt because she’d hidden his only bottle of scotch.
“Now, dear. Don’t be talking about your father that way.”
“Why not? You know how he behaves when he’s smashed.”
“When he’s smashed he never knows what he’s doing.”
Julia found she was digging her fingernails into her palms until they hurt. “There is no excuse for what he tried to do to me as a teenager.” She found it really hard to talk about this chapter of her life, which her mother always diminished or denied. But she wasn’t about to collude with her denial.
“What are you talking about?” his mother asked.
“Come on. You know very well what I’m talking about. His drunken visits to my bedroom when I was a teenager.”
“He did no such thing.” Why did she keep trying to make her mother admit what she refused to face?
“Are you telling me that you don’t remember the time I had to yell for help because I woke up to him pulling my pajamas down? You had to come and pull him off me.”
“You’re making it up. I did no such thing.”
“You might kid yourself, Mom. But you can’t kid me. Do you think I could forget something like that?”
“You’re not remembering right, Julia. He never did that.”
“You never stood up for me,” she replied bitterly.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Bullshit, Mom,” she shouted into the mouthpiece. Julia was close to tears, which only infuriated her more.
“Don’t swear at me. I’ll be upset all day if you go on like this.”
“Forget it, Mom,” she said.
There was an awkward pause. Julia was remembering the times she had had to wrestle and kick her father off her in bed. Luckily, drink robbed him of his strength. He would usually end up on the bedside floor cursing her with slurred swear words. Just un viejo verde, a dirty old man, her father.
“So, what do you think about this virus going around?” Julia asked her, trying to get the bitterness out of her voice.
“They’re saying it’s only affecting people in China. And who cares about them?”
Yes, she was also a racist, Julia reminded herself. Not that she was alone these days. Only that morning Julia had read a tweet: “Because of some folks in China who eat weird (foods) like bats, rats, and snakes, the entire world is about to suffer a plague.”
“I heard,” her mother went on, “that they deliberately spread the virus as a means of population control.”
“You know that the virus is beginning to spread to this country.”
“What do you mean?”
“They’ve just confirmed the eighth case here in the US. The Defense Department is preparing housing for thousands of travelers who’ll need to be quarantined here when they arrive from abroad.”
“Is that so?”
“It sure is. And yesterday the president issued an order restricting travel from China.”
“But just this morning I heard the Secretary for Health and Whatever-it-is say that the risk of it spreading to Americans is low.”
“Since when have you believed a government spokesperson?”
“You got a point there. Those bastards’ll say anything to keep us all quiet.”
“That sounds more like the mother I know.”
“If only Bernie was in charge we wouldn’t have to worry about catching some foreign virus plus we’d all have free healthcare.”
“I totally agree.” Julia didn’t want to spoil their unusual moment of agreement by pointing out that there was no known cure for this virus
“Nice talking to you, Mom. Got to go now. Bye.”
“Goodbye, dear. Give Liz a hug from me.”
“Will do. Bye again.”
Thank you, Brian Finney and Coriolis Company
About the author
Brian Finney, a professor of English, has published eight books on subjects ranging from a biography of Christopher Isherwood (awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Book Prize for the best work of non-fiction in 1979) to Terrorized: How the War on Terror Affected American Culture and Society, published on Amazon’s Kindle in 2011 and as a paperback in 2018. In 2019 he published his first novel, Money Matters, an unconventional detective novel in which a woman with no experience uncovers the whereabouts of a missing person with connections to the powerful CEO of a mutual fund company, a politician running for governor in California, and a drug cartel. Money Matters was released on August 22, 2019.
Born in London, he obtained a BA at Reading University and a Ph.D. at the University of London. He spent three years as an officer in the Royal Air Force and five years in management at Joseph Lucas Electrical and Standard Telephones and Cables. In 1964 he transferred to the University of London where he taught and organized courses in the arts for its Department of Extra-Mural Studies.
In 1987 he emigrated to Southern California. After two years as a Visiting Professor at the University of California, Riverside and subsequent adjunct positions at UCLA and the University of Southern California, he became a full-time professor at California State University, Long Beach, where he is currently a Professor Emeritus in the Department of English.
He is married to fine art photographer J.K. Lavin and lives in Venice, California.