My neighbors behave as though nothing has changed and I suppose for them nothing much has, other than how much space they put between themselves and the low wrought iron fence that separates their yard from the sidewalk where virtually all of the people who live in the barrio stop to chat. Sally still wiggles one foot while reading. Jim continues to go in and out of the screen door a hundred times a day, bringing this or that thing in or out with him while the not-supposed-to-have-been-this-big mixed-breed Betty gets in and out of Jim’s chair to the beat of the door slam. Their daily dance: same as it ever was.
But things have changed. Jim and Sally are no longer the only ones not going beyond their front gates, spending their days on the porch or when the weather dictates, inside, enjoying their living rooms as the Commander-In-Chief instructed. Indeed I am inside, enjoying my living room which is also my study, den, bedroom, dining room, parlor, dressing room, office, library, and gym. I am alone. My living room is alone. We’re in this together. Admittedly, I am doing the lion’s share of the survival work here, washing underwear in the bathtub, rationing my late-night snacks, and trying to remain calm about Netflix threatening to slow down streaming to prevent the Internet breaking. The living room assists, to be fair, holding onto light and birdsong in the day and turning the west windows into beautiful lapis paintings that deepen to navy and admiral blue as night ports at Tucson. The living room also houses the bookshelves which hold many bound papers that could offer themselves up as my personal cure for the national toilet paper crisis, should it come to that – but which book first? The living room will make me choose and it will be an impossible choice: which author to shit on.
I do not know if the living room micromanages its subordinates, the bathroom, closet, and miniscule kitchen. I only know that since I started rationing, the kitchen calls to me nearly constantly. You know how it is, the moment you say you’ll quit smoking you absolutely must have a cigarette. All I can think about is salt, fat, and sugar. I am drawn into the hiccup of a room to stare into the cupboards and refrigerator as though something new will have appeared since I stared into them twenty minutes earlier. And I eat, but guiltily. It’s not only imagining the lines I’d have to endure outside the grocery store to get more food. It’s that the more one eats, the more one has to shit and the longer I can go without having to choose which author, the better. Will it be the book I love least or the one with the softest looking pages? Surely nothing glossy, like The Hours of Catherine Cleves. Nothing with thick pages like the Prayer Journal of Flannery O’Connor, never mind that wiping one’s ass with the prayers of another is unthinkable. No, next to the Bible with its golden-edged tissuey pages, the best paper will be found in the 1933 Oxford Dictionary.
If Jim and Sally have ample space to spend outside during the quarantine – the front porch I’ve already mentioned, the one just above it jutting out from the upstairs bedroom and full of giant plants, and the sprawling back yard with porch swing – I have a little yellow post-it note of a stair stoop. From it I watch Jim and Sally. Obviously. And the passersby. Three days ago a well-dressed man and his companion walked down the street talking, the man carrying two unwrapped rolls of toilet paper that he either borrowed or stole from somewhere or someone. Crisis averted, for now. Apparently the fact that people have resorted to using items other than toilet paper to do their business has caused quite a problem for the sewer system. I read a plea by the City of Redding to “bag it” if you run out of toilet paper. Why would we have a supply of plastic bags if we don’t have any toilet paper? I once saw a man shit on the sidewalk in the Belltown district of Seattle, well before Amazon moved in and flushed the ‘undesirables’ to a different neighborhood. He didn’t have any accoutrement with him, just his ass and the sidewalk. A prophet. A trendsetter.
I’ve never shit outside. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest where one is expected to love camping and bicycle riding, this is an embarrassment to admit. There’s so much to learn with this virus, how to live alone in your living room, how to stop looking at your phone every six minutes for updated body counts, how to shit in the woods. Now that I live in the desert I understand it even less. Where does one tuck out of view to squat down? What about snakes and cactus and javelina and Border Patrol? Not concerns of the Belltown shitter.
Maybe things have changed for Jim and Sally. Maybe they are rationing their toilet paper, a 3-square limit. Maybe they’ve bought themselves a bidet given their apparent financial liquidity. I can’t see into their house from my post-it-note stoop (my post-it note snoop), but I can see that Betty, for her part, continues to shit outside as comfortably as a drunken homeless man in a rough part of town. So what of me? I have six rolls of toilet paper left, two stolen from the stash in a restaurant powder room, two loaned by my Costco-loving parents the last time I visited. Our sewer system, unable to handle paper towels, napkins, or Kleenex, surely can’t digest the entirety of even the letter X, a relief to my literary sensibilities but also an assault on my misplaced, it turns out, pride of self-reliance. So I suppose I will learn to shit out of doors, perhaps in the unused parking lot across from my apartment, behind a dumpster there, or hell, even out in the open. These are extraordinary times, after all. Just don’t tell me I have to start riding a bike.