It was fifteen days into a statewide lockdown for the Covid 19 virus. I was at home doing nothing much, just like everyone else. That’s what a lockdown is. Save lives. Offer up your boredom and your job and your 401 K for the sake of the greater good. It was still too soon to see if it was working. One could only hope.
The phone rang. It was my sister Claire. We had been checking up on each other a couple times a week, partly out of concern, partly out of the need to have someone to talk with. We were both living in Pennsylvania at the time but on opposite sides of the state. I was in Philadelphia, a fairly large city in the southeastern corner of the state, while she was in Canton, a town of five thousands in the mountains of northwestern Pennsylvania. It was five hour drive one way to her house.
“How’s it going Claire.”
“Okay. Still alive. How about you Dan?”
“Same here. Healthy. A little dull. Only so much TV you can watch.”
“I’m okay with the TV, but I need cigarettes. All the stores around here have run out of tobacco. There have been no shipments for a week.”
“Might be a good time to quit. I hear the death rate is higher for people who smoke.”
Claire laughed, “That’s a reason to smoke even more.”
Gallows humor. We had both gotten that from our father. The darker the better.
“I could send you cigarettes, but I don’t know if you’re allowed to mail them.”
“I guess I’ll have to drive to West Virginia on a mercy run for me and my neighbors. That’s if the state police will let me cross the border. I heard this morning they’re stopping cars and having them fill out forms to prove they’re ‘essential’, otherwise your not supposed to be on the road.”
“What happens if you’re not essential?”
“That’s not clear. A fine? A scolding?”
“Maybe they make you move to Ohio.”
She laughed again, “No one would be that cruel. I guess I’ll just go crazy then. There’s no hard liquor in Canton either. Stores shut down. Just beer. Thank God for beer. Without booze this town will explode.”
“I have beer in the fridge leftover from Christmas. Haven’t opened a bottle since the lockdown began.”
“That’s because you’re a prude. Always have been. That’s why mom liked you.”
“She didn’t like me. She liked Henry.”
Henry is our baby brother.
“That’s true,” Claire said. “Everyone loves Henry. I owe him a call.”
“So do I.”
We said that, but both pretty much knew Henry might not get a call from either of us.
“The biggest problem here is cat litter,” Claire said. “I’ve run out and there’s none in town.”
“Do you still have five cats?”
“They keep me warm at night.”
My sister the cat lady.
“Is there anything else you can use for litter?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about it.”
I thought for a moment.
“Shredded newspapers? Back when I had a cat that’s what I used when I ran out of litter.”
“Canton doesn’t have a newspaper. Just a digital bulletin that comes out once a week, sent to your email account.”
“Maybe you could pick up cigarette butts from the sidewalk? Or ask friends for the contents of their ash trays? You might even find some leftover tobacco, enough to fill a pipe.”
“Right. Like I’m going to do that.”
“Any other ideas?”
There was no easy solution. I tried to make light of it.
“I guess I could send you cat litter. But I could only fit so much in an envelope. It would take a lot of envelopes to fill a box.”
“I have three litter boxes for my cats. Send a few bags.”
“That’s a lot of postage. Is there anything you can get from a dollar store to fill the need?”
“I don’t know. Pancake mix? Oatmeal? Breakfast cereal. Have you ever tried dollar store breakfast cereal? Tastes awful. Might as well use it as cat litter.”
“You just need to add sugar and it tastes fine.”
“If you don’t mind the absence of food value.”
“Some people eat what they can afford.”
Ouch. I thought. I’ll have to send her another check. It had been months since I sent her the last one. My baby brother Henry and I did that from time to time. Claire had a long run of bad luck exacerbated by an even longer run of bad choices. It wasn’t like Henry or me were doing great, but, in comparison with Claire we had nothing to complain about.
“Well, I’m out of ideas,” I said. “You’ll just have to think of something to use as cat litter.”
“I guess I could shred my old tax records,” Claire suggested.
“You’d need a lot of tax records. You use the EZ form, right?”
“Yeah, but I’ve got like ten years of records in the garage.”
“Uncle Sam to the rescue.”
“Maybe that will cover this week. Next week I’ll have to think of something else.”
I thought for a moment.
“What happened to your romance novel collection?”
“It was no collection. Just a few books. I gave them away.”
“A friend needed something for her gerbil cage.”
“Okay. You’ll have to take it one week at a time.”
“I think we’re all doing that.”