With Thanksgiving behind them, and Christmas ahead, Scott, Sissy and their kids settle into a steady schedule of inside and outside chores to meet the physical challenges of the pandemic.
With the cool – but not yet cold – weather, Sissy is anxious to give the whole house a good airing and disinfecting. Each day the whole family comes together to clean and reorganize a single room. They start with Johnnie’s room and then go on to the rest of the bedrooms. Beds and bedding get a thorough washing. Mattresses and pillows are aired out and disinfected. The walls and ceilings are dusted and scrubbed down. All the toys and clothes are gone through and anything outgrown goes into the Barter Box – the plastic tub of items that Scott hauls over to the empty lot on market days. Each day sees Sissy moving them busily down the "To Do" list. With the whole family working together, the house is soon sparkling and fresh despite several rooms having been taken over as indoor shed and nighttime greenhouse.
Scott has decided to venture to their rental properties only twice during the month of December; once on the fifth and once on the 15th. On the first he comes back with only enough cash for two more fill ups of his gas tank and with some ingenious items bartered for rent. He gets two bushels of sour oranges that are barely ripe, a bucket of earthworms, a bushel of mixed greens, and some commodities that their tenants received but were unable or unwilling to eat.
The sour oranges cannot be eaten alone, but their juice makes a wonderful marinade for their canned meats or salad dressing for fresh greens. The thick orange peel Sissy soaks and then candies as a treat for Christmas. The seeds she sets aside to cure and then plant after the beginning of the year. She thinks, "Who knows if those seeds will germinate, but if they do they could make a good barter item."
The wigglers are used as the first tenants in the kids’ new worm farm. They are far from being the pet the kids had been asking for last summer, but at least they don’t have to worry about them catching the panflu and being culled. The worm casings will also enrich the compost pile the kids are responsible for maintaining.
The mixed greens are very thoroughly cleaned. There is no sense in avoiding panflu to die of salmonella or some other food borne illness. Some of the greens are dried for later use. A few bundles of the greens look enough like spinach that Sissy cans them with high hopes. No one complains of having to eat greens three meals a day, but Bekah keeps checking her ears to see if she is turning part rabbit. She is turning into quite the little clown and even showed up to the dinner table with a pink nose and painted on whiskers. She certainly had Johnnie laughing all through dinner.
The commodities though are the biggest surprise. They are unexpected but very welcome on the pantry shelves. Granted some of the items are culturally different from what most of their tenants normally eat, but what they consider so worthless is amazing. There are canned beets and canned German potato salad and several large boxes of raisins – a little dry, but salvageable. There are a couple of tubs of couscous and one commercial sized tub of old-fashioned oats. There are two packages of dried fruit bits and one of prunes. Most shocking of all, there is twenty pounds of lentils. Apparently some people will risk starvation rather than learn to eat different than what they are used to. But the family refuses to look a gift horse in the mouth, and tucks their "income" away as carefully as if they had received cash and were depositing it into a bank.
In addition to all the work indoors, Scott makes a list of chores to do outside. They gather fallen limbs, cut them into appropriate lengths and set them to season just in case they are reduced to burning wood for cooking or warmth. Even though the grass has finally stopped growing until Spring - they had been cutting it with a scythe - there are still leaves and other things to be picked up and put into the compost bin. The two grapefruit trees are carefully monitored for the first signs of ripeness. Water is gathered from the infrequent rainfall and is strained, filtered, and purified for storage. Garbage is dealt with and everything that can be is recycled.
One such recycling project is that the kids are flattening a lot of the empty vegetable cans to make outdoor burglar alarms. So far they have managed to give two raccoons and one opossum heart attacks, but human thieves are proving to be a little more clever.
The biggest challenge by far though, at least in terms of Sissy’s nerves, is their mobile garden and edible landscaping. They have planted several barrels of bush beans – garbanzo (aka chickpeas), black beans, pintos, kidney beans, great northern, etc. They only planted a small container of beets so the canned beets they took in at the beginning of December are welcome. They have a tub of broccoli that is looking promising. Carrots are growing happily in deep window boxes. They have bush cucumbers in several large, decorative planters. There is cut and come again greens that they are harvesting at the rate of several family sized salads per week. The greens are growing in flats Scott built out of untreated lumber.
They have hidden the vines of poles beans on a couple of denuded pecan saplings. To the casual observer they look more like weedy potato vines because the beans are all picked as soon as they are large enough. The vines have been producing since mid-October and now, in December, the last raggedy beans are being picked and the vines themselves are dying back and ready to throw onto the compost pile. They have managed to hide a few other plants amongst their normal landscaping as well. There is burdock, cabbage, celtuce, collards, garlic, salsify, and turnips.
In addition to the pole beans, October saw a harvest of cherry and plum tomatoes. The cherry tomatoes were grown in hanging planters and are about finished. The plum tomatoes were turned into sauce and canned before October breathed its last. October also saw a small harvest of garden huckleberries and husk tomatoes (aka ground cherries).
The rest of their plants are not ready for harvest yet, but just looking at them brings a lot of satisfaction. Even if the harvest is not great, it will supplement their prep pantry and help to stretch it further. But Sissy keeps worrying that she is either doing too little or too much to the plants. They can’t afford many losses.
Scott keeps up with neighborhood news every market day. At the last one, he is shocked to hear that four houses that are three streets over from their neighborhood enclave are infected with pandemic flu. These four homes banded together in a tight knit group for protection and all had somehow managed to get on the rather exclusive list for receiving commodity deliveries. These homes opted for a strict SIP, even going so far as to build enclosed breezeways between the homes and putting up signs warning unauthorized visitors they would be forcibly turned away and that intruders would be shot. The residents of those houses were almost religiously zealous in their determination not to allow any outside contact for the duration of the pandemic. For these reasons it is believed by most in the neighborhood that it must have been the commodity deliveries that resulted in infection – either the commodity delivery person was infected, the commodity goods were contaminated. It didn’t really matter so much how they got infected, but the fact that they were infected was worrying.
In one of the homes a six-month old baby has already died. The houses are surrounded with the bright yellow biohazard tape the local Public Health people are using to mark homes under forced quarantine. Apparently the mother of the infant was so hysterical when the baby was taken away that she was ripping at the PPE of the Coroner’s staff. She had to be sedated in the interest of her safety and everyone else’s. What is really frightening though is that she was apparently heard threatening to infect every child in the neighborhood in retaliation for her own baby’s death. A couple of people even claim to have seen her wandering the streets at night looking in at windows.
Scott is inclined to put that last bit down to a boogey-man type gossip except Sissy did mention thinking that she saw someone flitting up and down the street just last night. It could have been a Garden Pirate, a kid breaking curfew, or a thief casing the neighborhood. It could have been anyone, even something innocent, but their family now lives by the motto, "better safe than sorry."
Rumor or gossip, Scott gets James to help him reinforce some of their security measures, especially in the bedrooms. Scott replaces most of the panes of glass with plexi-glass he has left over from a building renovation. The only window he isn’t able to change out is too high to climb into without a ladder anyway. On that window’s outside sill he uses epoxy to glue down carpet strips. If someone tries to jump and grab the sill, they will be in for a painful surprise. Sissy will recycle the glass panes by building cold frames in January.
Also, Scott starts wearing more PPE when he goes to the market, at least until the quarantine is lifted on those houses and they are sure that there are no active infections on their road. He has only been wearing a mask, but now he is back to using surgical gloves under gardening gloves (to make the medical ones less conspicuous) and wearing safety goggles over his glasses.
Scott and Sissy don’t really need to trade for anything. Their preps are holding up just fine though Sissy would have given a lot to have stored more individual packets of quick rise yeast. The bottles of yeast were more economical when she had been stocking up, but she is never sure whether she will be able to use a bottle all up before it goes bad. In reality, going to the market at the empty lot is more of a way to get news and to stay plugged in with the neighbors than it is a way of filling holes in their pantry.
They try and look like everyone else. They don’t use their preps for trading. When people start talking about their circumstances, they keep quiet about theirs. They don’t want to stand out. That would cause too many questions Scott and Sissy don’t want to answer. And the questions left unanswered could lead others to get nosey – perhaps forcibly – until they get the answers they seek. And they have lost weight just like everyone else, just not as much as some of the people on their road.
"Hello Scott. Trading today?"
"Hello Mr. Jones. Actually I heard that the Connors were looking for a pair of shoes for their little boy. I have a pair that Johnnie outgrew and I thought I’d see if they were the right size. If they are, hopefully we can reach a deal."
"Well, here is Paul Connor now, but I have to tell you, in my opinion the guy is a scut. He’ll take you for everything he can and wait for ever to pay you what you’re owed."
"Sounds like experience talking."
"Yeah. His wife is good enough but both of them could do more to make their kids’ lives better. Mrs. Cleary and I were working over in the garden when Buelah Connor came over begging … begging … for scraps ‘cause her kids were hungry. This after they had been offered a share in the greens if they would come help weed a row. But they turned that down. Cleary gave her one head of greens but I was just about to spit nails. Those people are white trash."
"Well, looks like maybe his boy doesn’t need shoes so bad after all. Looks like he is trying to trade with Bob Grinder for that partial bottle of Jack Daniels."
"Like I said, white trash. How are you folks doing?"
"We’re doing OK. Garden is keeping us fed."
"With that big family you’ve got that must be one heck of a garden."
"Its gets us through and that’s all anyone absolutely needs."
"Suppose your right. You must be paying an arm and a leg for fuel since your van is still running."
"For a fact it is getting expensive. But, I’ve got business responsibilities. Its not like I can just decide not to go manage properties. I’ve got to keep up with things somehow. I’m not going out any more than I absolutely have to though."
"You going to try and trade anything else? You and Sissy don’t seem to trade that much."
"We’ve got a tub of stuff that the kids have outgrown but I hate to lug it out every time I come over here. Its better just to listen to what people are looking for and then see if I’ve got it and find out what they are willing to trade for it. What are you trading for today?"
"I’m looking for a whet stone buff most of the people here don’t even seem to know what I’m talking about. I’ve tried using my big metal file, but I really need a stone to but an edge on my machete and my other garden knives; they are getting pretty dull."
"Well, I just so happen to have a whet stone, but not for trade. But I’ll lend it to you so long as you don’t lend it to anyone else."
"What’ll you take for the use?"
"Nothing, consider it a favor."
"Son, I can’t just do that. It’ll set a bad precedent here in the neighborhood. Beside, I may be an old man but I’m no charity case."
"Aw, come on Mr. Jones. That’s not what I meant. If you want to do something though, I’d appreciate it if you would keep an eye on the house when I’m away and you are working in the garden. The other day when I was gone, Sissy was working outside and she said she swore it felt like someone was spying on her. She said it was really creepy."
"Now that don’t sound good."
"No and it was broad daylight. I trust her instincts though. We’ve had quite a few strangers walking through lately, using it as a short cut to get to Livingston Avenue. Stranger or neighbor, someone bold enough to track Sissy’s movements during the daytime, and make it on a day I’m not home, might decide to come back and see what else he can do."
"I’ll surely keep an eye out. And if you don’t mind, I’ll pass the word up and down the street. More eyes we have tracking strangers the better."
"Fine by me. I’ll go get that stone for you now."