by C.W. Spooner
Rafael Castroneves looked through the windshield at the mass of cars ahead of him. Would he reach the testing station while still alive? Or would they have to push his car off to the side and call the coroner’s wagon? The issue was in doubt.
Just two short days ago, he was a seventy-seven-year-old man in sound health, living a secure existence in his one-bedroom apartment. A pension from the City of Los Angeles plus Social Security covered his expenses. Medicare provided healthcare. He filled his days with simple pleasures—a trip to his favorite coffee house, the crossword puzzle in the L.A. Times, the novels of Michael Connelly and Elmore Leonard borrowed from the neighborhood library. And of course, Dodger baseball on the radio, and sometimes even on TV. Life was predictable and good, good enough for an old man.
He hadn’t counted on the coronavirus.
Two days ago, Rafael’s symptoms began to multiply. Fever spiking to 102. Shortness of breath. Pain throughout his body. Difficulty keeping food on his stomach. His neighbor, Mrs. Fernandez, had insisted he call the appointment/advice line and demand a test appointment. It took a full day but he’d succeeded. He’d been given an authorization and directed to Dodger Stadium where a drive-through test site was up and running. And now, here he was, sweating in the eighty-degree heat, one among a sea of automobiles arrayed into six lanes, inching toward the testing stations. If only he could hold on long enough. He’d been in line for three hours.
Mrs. Fernandez, God bless her, helped him pack a small cooler. He had bottled water, a left-over burrito, beans and rice, a few granola bars. The water was welcome but he had no appetite for solid food.
Amelia Fernandez—such a fine woman! Once there was a romantic relationship. Now they were just dear friends. It was good to have a neighbor who cared, one you cared for as well. He wished she were there to reassure him, to tell him everything would be alright.
Rafael’s cell phone chimed, startling him from his reverie. It was a text message from his friend Paco.
“Hey Rafael! That you up there?”
Rafael picked up the phone and thumbed a reply. “Paco…where are you?”
“I’m behind you, second lane, four cars back.”
Rafael adjusted his rearview mirror and saw Paco wave. “Holy crap! You too?”
“Yep. All the symptoms. My old lady made the appointment.”
The vehicles in Rafael’s lane inched forward. He started his engine and moved up, then shut it off again. “I’ve been here 3 hrs. How bout you?”
“A little less. My lane is catching up with yours. LOL”
“Hang in there, amigo. Maybe we’ll get lucky.”
No reply. Rafael opened a bottle of water and took a drink. He knew hydration was a must, but he didn’t want to fill his bladder. Amelia also sent a shopping bag with a couple of Mason jars. “In case you need to relieve yourself,” she said. What a sweetheart! Where would he be without her? Sitting on a wet seat no doubt. The phone chimed again. Paco was back.
“Did you watch Dodgers-Angels last night?”
“Yeah, some. Until I couldn’t hold my head up.” Rafael tried never to miss a game.
“Chris Taylor, baby. Three-run jack. Two nights in a row.”
“He’s a good man. Plays everywhere. Davy likes him for that.” Rafael smiled. It was good to have baseball to take your mind away from trouble.
“I hear they test players EVERY DAY.”
“Hey, we’re talking valuable merchandise.”
“What’s Mookie making this year? 27 million?”
“Ha! What would you do with 27 mil?”
“OMG! College for my kids. A house for my family. Security forever. You think Mookie is out here in line for his test?”
“Oh yeah. Mookie, Clayton, Cody, Justin. They’re all here. Maybe LeBron too.”
“Nah. LeBron is in the bubble down in Florida. Ha!”
The line inched forward and Rafael started his engine to follow. He checked the clock on the dashboard of his Chevy Cruze. It had been four hours.
Movement up ahead caught his eye. Figures clad in full PPE moved down the line of cars, one for each lane, delivering a message. Rafael lowered his window as the person in his lane approached.
“Sorry, sir. We’ve run out of test kits. You’ll have to come back. We should be open again tomorrow. Check with your provider.”
“Oh no! You’ve got to be kidding me!” Rafael was livid, but he knew it wasn’t the attendant’s fault.
“Sorry. We’re having everyone pull through the stations, into the exit lanes. Please pull forward when you can.” With that, the blue-gowned figure moved on.
It took another hour to clear the parking lot.
Clack clack clack! The loud rapping on the driver’s side window woke Rafael with a jolt. He’d made it to his East L.A. neighborhood at twilight before he had to pull over to the curb. He planned to close his eyes for a moment and wait for the dizzy spell to pass. He looked up to see a police officer staring at him, the face covered by a dark mask, illuminated by colored lights flashing from the patrol car parked behind. He lowered the window.
“License and registration.” The voice sounded angry.
Rafael fumbled in the glove box for the registration form, then to remove his wallet from his back pocket. He handed both documents to the officer.
“Have you been drinking, Mr. Castroneves?”
“No, I have not—” He wanted to explain, to ask for help.
“Sir, please step out of the vehicle.” The cop took a step back, one hand on his service weapon, watching the old man guilty of sleeping at the curb.
Rafael felt defeated, destroyed. “No,” he said. “I can’t do that.”
He closed his eyes and tried to picture Amelia’s sweet face just one more time.
C.W. Spooner’s stories have appeared in The Storyteller, Spitball, Lost Coast Review, Balloons Literary Journal, The Halcyone Review, and an anthology from Main Street Rag. He has published two story collections, three novellas, and a collection of essays, memoirs, and poems. He lives and writes in Aliso Viejo, California.