By Walker James
Henry Smalls owned a diner just south of Beaver Creek, with a simple name in big red letters: EAT. His late brother had owned it until 1987, when Henry bought him out, after his brother’s bloodwork came back positive. It was the only structure for miles in either direction. Highway 52: a long strand of silver hair fallen upon the map like the last evidence of a lover who slipped away in the middle of the night.
For twenty-three years, Henry opened the shop every morning at sunrise and closed down every night at sunset; flipping the switches one by one, stopping to enjoy the half-light, how the pop case glowed like a TV in the darkened diner, a blue miasma of light.
He unplugged the stove in the kitchen, the fryer, and the big shiny dishwasher his daughters had bought for him on his birthday four years ago. Before, he’d wash every dish with soap and water and a yellow sponge until his hands glowed pink and torn like raw chicken breasts.
Just as the sun went down on the cornfields, bleeding red like a ruptured lung, Henry Smalls closed up shop and stood behind the counter, pressing his knuckles into the wood, taking some weight off his lower back. He watched the sunset through the diner windows, his lungs rattling with the smallest of breaths.
In the dark, he set the vial of hydroxychloroquine down on the wooden counter, next to a stack of paper napkins and a metal tray with a squeeze bottle of red catsup and a squeeze bottle of yellow mustard and a glass bottle of Louisiana Hot Sauce.
“Kalamazoo and Tyler too,” he muttered, a gleam in his one good eye—the other drifted like a lost moon wandering out of orbit—“Wait a second now. Is that how it goes?”
Henry coughed a fit and bent over the counter, pressing his left cheek against the wood; he felt the grooves of old scratch marks, initials carved by patrons using bottle caps or car keys or Swiss army knives.
Not one remained. Over half of them dead from the “China Hoax,” as Henry called it, the cash register bare, all bonfires doused—he hadn’t had a customer in months.
Penelope, his eldest daughter, a semi-professional kayaker who got the hell out of town as quick as she could and graduated from nursing school in Minneapolis, had died. She died in April, one of the first deaths in Minnesota: she hadn’t wanted to take up a bed in the hospital, so she passed in her own, in her apartment in Woodbury, and wasn’t found for three weeks. Her dog had eaten her left arm. She drowned in her own lungs.
Queen Anne, he called his youngest, a girl with a temper; a skier and a bartender. She vanished for a few weeks right around the time Henry got the $1200 stimulus check. Her houseboat was found floating in Lake Superior. Annie and her husband, both of them cold dead in the cabin, their veins full of bleach.
The stimulus check vanished into coffins, which vanished into the ground. Henry attended both funerals in person, without a mask, the only other attendee being the priest whose mask was thick and black and looked like a storm cloud above the white checkbox of his collar. Duluth was bright and sunny during the funerals. The pine trees in the graveyard shuddered with wind, their needles falling to the grass like syringes to a gutter.
Six nights after Anne’s funeral, he saw the president on Fox news, the glow of the television screen a faint blue halo, as he talked about a possible cure.
Henry Smalls stared into the vial of hydroxychloroquine, gleaming in the light from the pop cooler full of glass Coca-Cola bottles. He liked telling stories of his youth, he and his brother shooting bottles off the fence that had separated their father’s land from the neighboring farm. They used to compete and see who could shatter the most Coke bottles in five shots. And every time he lost, he’d say, “Oh, Daddy’s gonna be sore at us!” and every time he won he’d say, “See that? See that? I told ya. Just like Crockett.”
Henry coughed in the dark of his diner, lungs bloated like water buffalo. The highway was completely silent and had been for weeks, except for the occasional semi going up to Duluth, filled with shipments of masks or gowns or other medical supplies. Henry hadn’t bothered to clean the front windows, and the last drops of sunset lit the dust gathered on the glass. It reminded him of church, how the light came in through stained glass windows way up in the vaulted ceilings, how the dust-beams burned in all shades of red, the color of the body.
He attached the needle to the vial, and the silver liquid dripped down the tube, gathering near the pore. His lungs felt full with metal shavings; it was getting harder to breathe. “I ain’t no con man,” he muttered, “And I ain’t never been conned.I always see it clear through. Lord knows.” He tied his arm with the brown rubber hose and remembered the way he found his brother in the outhouse in the winter of 1987, after buying out the diner. He remembered his father’s last words, muffled through the ventilator, in 1999: “A son should live long enough to inherit his daddy’s farm and long enough to see his sons do the same.” He remembered driving Penelope and his Annie down to St. Paul for the Winter Carnival, the Christmas lights strung up on leafless ginkgo trees in the parks. Every year, they’d go. It was always a long drive. Everything was always such a long drive.