Chemical Valley, Turkey, and Bleach: the importance of good hygiene in a pandemic
Mom used to make Dad shower as soon as he got home from work. His coveralls would be hung in the closet off of the mud room, concrete pad flooring and a bare bulb with a metal ball pull string that makes a satisfying click when you pull it down to fill the space with dull light. I remember him scrubbing his hands under the faucet as he worked away the grease from under his nails and in the cracks of his skin. She tells me some years later with some pride, when I’m an adult and maybe we’re outside having a cigarette, that was by design on her part. She didn’t know what he could be bringing back home with him and so she made him shed that outer skin, his coveralls, and then wash away down the drain whatever might have clung to him from his day working in Chemical Valley.
Her brother had been an asbestos worker. He died of mesothelioma.
Mom has always had contamination fears. She would prepare the turkey for thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, my sisters and I required to hang around the kitchen, maybe grab the sage or shake the big bag of frozen white bread, spices and butter cooked onions and celery for the dressing to be stuffed into the bird. She would methodically work with the turkey, putting it in the kitchen sink to rinse it off with water, first over the bumpy skin of its breast and thighs and then through the cavity, running it under the tap, water flowing through the neck hole and out the stuffing end of it. After the turkey was in the oven, Mom would break out the big bottle of liquid bleach and fill the sink with scalding hot water. She would wipe down every surface, the countertops, the whole of the sink and the handles and then go over everything again with a fresh sink of scalding water. So the smell of the holidays was bleach, followed an hour later by the savoury smell of turkey, butter and sage.
Then she would light a cigarette and click down the switch on the electric kettle to make herself an instant coffee.
On my second Thursday practicing social distancing, I went to the grocery store for the first time in two weeks. There was a bored looking teenager standing by the carts with disinfectant wipes, presumably he had already treated these ones, and I cautiously pulled out a cart, conscious of my palms and fingers making contact with a surface outside of the items in my home. I headed into the store. I was immediately struck by how well stocked it was. It seemed the produce section at least was impervious to what the news had told me to expect.
Inside, there were people shopping for groceries, but not many. More than I am comfortable with, I realize as my heart beats steady fast in my chest. There are men in their 30s who normally cut in front of me to grab a steak instead of waiting the two seconds until I’ve selected my item and moved on, who do so now as well. It’s clear that they feel unaffected, both by the physical space they choose to occupy despite someone else being there already, and by their presumed physical fitness, which makes them unlikely to fall very ill or die of this virus. I tighten my grip on the shopping cart. A few wisps of my hair fall across my face as a reach down to grab some stew beef. I resist the urge to brush them away.
I’m worried my body is a vessel for the illness, that I might touch something and make someone sick. I haven’t seen anyone in two weeks except for my sister and a couple of friends for a socially distant walk around the neighbourhood but I still worry. I check my list again. It’s on my phone, which suddenly feels filthy in my hand, though I’ve taken to wiping it all over with a paper towel soaked in Mr. Clean.
I make my way through the aisles, trying to be sure to grab everything I’ll need for the next two weeks. I get in line. I needed black beans but it’s too late. I’m feeling panicky, surveilled, vulnerable. I want to get out of there, badly. I ask the cashier how her day is going. Our eyes meet, I soften, she laughs. “You wouldn’t believe how crazy some people are,” she says. She’s young and pretty, and obviously good natured. “Oh yeah?” I say, holding up my air miles card to be scanned. “There was a guy in here with a bleach rag,” she says, shaking her head, putting a can of tomatoes into one of my bags. “A bleach rag?” I reply. “Yeah! A bleach rag. He was wiping everything down as he put it on the counter. I told him, that much bleach can’t be good for you. I had to go outside on break after he left, the smell was so strong,” she says, laughing. “Jeez, that’s nuts,” I reply, chuckling.
I get home and unload my neighbour’s groceries on her back deck. I take out the Lysol wipes she asked me to get and balance them on top of everything. Then I walk between the back of my car and up my back deck, bringing bags into the house in a few trips. The cat moves his body between the bags on the floor, sniffing each one, putting his whole head inside sometimes for a better vantage point. I grab the bleach, fill the sink with the hottest water I can stand, soak a rag and start wiping down each item.