Shishir (Winter) 2021 Stories - Cora Tate


Frustrating Little Molecule
By Cora Tate


Sierra did not feel sorry for herself, but she felt frustrated in several ways and tired of the necessary isolation. After eight months of social distancing and masks, of no hiking, no camaraderie, no romance, no sex, and no music, she felt well and truly tired of the pandemic and ready for the novel corona virus to mutate into something harmless and let normal life resume—although she didn’t expect that to happen, or at least not soon.

Behemoth Insurance Group, Sierra’s employer, used the pandemic as an excuse to cut—although they said “reconfigure”—her job to half-time, but at least she was able to work from home. Her half-time wage provided barely enough for her to keep up her mortgage payments without dipping into her modest savings, as long as no emergencies occurred. Sierra recognized she was better off than a great many people, but she still longed for life to return to normal.

Weeks cooped up inside made Sierra long for her weekly or twice-weekly hikes in the nearby national park and further afield. She hadn’t walked up Klahhane Ridge, Blue Mountain Summit, or even Hurricane Hill in months and missed them as well as Obstruction Point and Marymere Falls and Mount Ellinor and all her other favorite places to hike. She missed the deer and the marmots and the friendly birds on Mount Storm King.

Sierra wasn’t much for nightlife, but she liked to hear live music every week or so. Often, before the lockdowns, she would drop in at Shenanigans Irish Pub after work on a Wednesday and enjoy listening to the weekly jam session. Now, she listened to CDs or YouTube clips and played her guitar a few minutes each day. Hardly the same, she thought, as she put her guitar away and returned to her computer to finish a report for work.

If she hadn’t broken up with her boyfriend just before the novel corona virus invaded the region, the two of them would probably have sheltered in place together, sharing an isolation bubble. That would have reduced the frustration in one area of Sierra’s at the expense of increasing the frustration in other areas. I’m glad we aren’t, she thought. We were not a good match. It would be nice to have some company, but not Alan.

Sierra shopped carefully and kept her freezer and cupboards full but still needed to replenish her larder every ten days or, rarely, two weeks. She had picked up her grocery orders in the parking lot, ever since the local supermarkets had introduced on-line ordering, but sometimes felt the need to select produce herself. Having exhausted her supplies of fruit and vegetables at breakfast, she headed out on a shopping expedition as soon as she had finished the report for Behemoth.

Shopping used to be such an ordinary activity. Now, going into the supermarkets didn’t feel safe, not anymore. Sierra always wore a large fabric mask over an N95 and made a point of staying at least six feet away from everyone else when she could. Some other people did the same, but many did not. Every time Sierra shopped, she found herself confronted by a person, often as not without a mask, going the wrong way down a one-way aisle. That invariably meant passing within a couple feet of each other. If nobody had come into the aisle behind her, Sierra would quickly back out of that aisle and go after another item on her list, returning to the overcrowded aisle later. Sometimes she couldn’t do that and would have to hold her breath and march at quick-step past the offender.

Normally restrained and almost shy, Sierra had been known to say, “Excuse me, ma’am, did you know this is a one-way aisle?” That usually earned her a scowl and sometimes a string of curses, although she had received a couple of embarrassed apologies. Either way, shopping had become a stressful experience. If only people would follow the directions posted all over the store, Sierra thought. But they didn’t. Often, when a maskless person cursed her attempt to inform an errant shopper, Sierra thought, Probably a Trump supporter, but that didn’t help much.

On this early-winter afternoon with the temperature hovering about freezing, Sierra felt glad her car’s heater worked well but experienced mixed feelings otherwise. She felt good about all she had accomplished in her morning’s work but felt a little down, too. Everything seems worse in winter, she thought. It’s a grey, gloomy day, and I have noone to go home to, noone to cuddle, not even anyone to sit and talk with.

Sierra responded to the gloom by pulling on a pair of disposable gloves from the box she kept in the car. She donned her masks, grabbed a shopping cart, and strode into the supermarket. Twenty minutes later with her cart half full, she picked up three loaves of Dave’s Killer Bread and headed toward the produce. Rounding a corner, she encountered a tall man with sparkling blue eyes and thinning salt-and-pepper hair who adroitly backed up to maintain a seven- or eight-foot space between them. The man inclined his head and said, “Hi,” as he backed away.

Glad for any positive human interaction and the more so for his cheery greeting, Sierra replied with a big smile—How silly, she thought, he can’t see me smile with these masks on—and a friendly “Hello.” She then continued to the produce area, as the man headed toward the bread.

The man passed Sierra again a few minutes later, as they both moved in the opposite directions. This time, they were already six or seven feet apart, and the man said, “Gee, isn’t this frustrating.”

“You’ve picked exactly the right word,” Sierra replied. “Frustrating.”

They both backed up another foot or two and chatted for a moment, exchanging pleasantries, comments on the election, and complaints about the wintry weather, then went their separate ways for the second time. They met again at the cheese cooler—Sierra noted with approval that the man picked up a large block of her favorite sharp cheddar—and again at the checkout, where, carefully separated by the newly-installed marks on the floor, they shared complaints about the necessary restrictions brought on by the pandemic. Both bemoaned the lack of music in their lives and both excoriated the federal government’s response to the virus. They also swapped names, so Sierra learned her new acquaintance’s name was Jack.

She paid, thanked the cashier, waved to Jack, and headed for her car, thinking, That’s the nicest exchange I’ve had with anyone, since this whole mess started.
Jack overtook Sierra on the way to the parking lot. They walked side-by-side, maintaining the stipulated six-foot separation, and chatted as they walked. She remarked that they hadn’t even seen each other, so they stopped, backed another yard away from each other, and removed their masks. Sierra gave Jack her biggest, warmest smile, and then replaced her masks, so she wouldn’t appear reckless. Jack did much the same, and then they continued chatting as they proceeded to the nearer car, which happened to be hers.

He offered to put her groceries in the trunk, but Sierra thanked him and declined, then moved them herself. Jack returned the shopping cart as Sierra unlocked her door. She climbed into the driver’s seat, swung the door shut, and rolled down the window. He stood a good six feet away and said, “I’d like to see you again.”

“I would like that, too,” Sierra replied, and fished her cell phone out of her purse, while Jack retrieved a piece of notepaper from his blue jeans pocket. She loaned him the pen she kept in the glove box and recorded Jack’s number in her cellphone’s memory. He wrote her number and email address on the paper and returned the pen, and the new friends chatted for twenty minutes about a variety of topics from politics to livelihoods. In the process, they discovered a shared passion for environmental issues, and Sierra learned that Jack made his living as a musician. They agreed to stay in touch and to see each other again, as soon as the virus had been subdued.

Sierra began to worry that the cold might adversely affect her new friend’s health and said so. He replied, “Nahh, I’m OK for now. I wouldn’t want to stand out here all day, but I’m fine for a few minutes.”

She nevertheless kept their conversation brief, bid him a friendly farewell, and headed out of the parking lot and home with much mutual hand-waving, as he walked to his—borrowed, he’d told her—van. An email message from Jack that evening delighted her—All out of proportion, she thought—and elicited a concise reply: Just call. He did, and they talked for more than two hours, sharing their thoughts, opinions, and ideas on dozens of topics.

Thus began a regular and frequent exchange of thoughts and feelings, mostly in more than seventy conversations over the cellular network and occasionally via email that intensified steadily. In addition to their myriad other topics, the two have repeatedly discussed forming an isolated bubble together. Sierra expressed her desires without obfuscation but also expressed her concern about the possibility of being a vector for an infection that might kill Jack.

“Apart from my age, I don’t have any significant risk factors,” Jack replied. “Oh, I do sometimes get asthmatic symptoms from a few allergies, but I’m basically very healthy. I don’t smoke or anything.”

Sierra has said she will lay in supplies to enable her to stay home for twenty days. Jack praised that idea and said he would do the same. After that self-quarantine period, they agree, they can get together without social distancing. With the end of Winter in sight, both hope for the best.


Cora Tate from Bhutan was educated as a scientist and graduated as a mathematician, Cora Tate has been a full-time professional entertainer most of her life, including a stint as a regular performer on the prestigious Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee. Cora’s repeated attempts to escape the entertainment industry have brought work as a librarian, physics teacher, syndicated newspaper columnist, and city (land use) planner, among other occupations. She lives, writes, and continues to improve her dzonkha vocabulary and pronunciation in Bhutan but visits the US and Europe to perform and thereby to recharge her bank account. Cora has written four novels, three novellas (one published), three novelettes (two published), and forty-some short stories, of which thirty have been published in six countries. Her work won the 2019 Fair Australia Prize.


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