Darren’s computer chimed, for at least the fourteenth time that hour. The sentence that he had just worked out in his head for the report he was writing, due at the end of the day, vanished into the nevernever. Again. “What now?”, he groaned.
When the directive came down, that all of the company’s finance staff were to work from home, effective immediately, Darren all but danced a jig. “Finally”, he said to himself, “a chance to get some of the real work done without interruptions!“
He had not factored in the needs of his fellow homebound coworkers to communicate. Since they could no longer wander around the cubicles, coffee mugs in hand, visiting. His email traffic was, he reckoned, threefold (at least) what it was when he was in his office. If he turned the sound off on his computer, then chat boxes opened in the middle of his screen. And if he disabled the chat boxes, the phone would ring. “What do you mean you’re not following company and departmental business?”, the Director of Finance scolded. “Yessir”, Darren had replied. And ruefully turned all the notifications back on, realizing that he was going to get no more of a chance to concentrate while telecommuting than while regular commuting.
And, mostly, for the sake of junk. Darren tracked down the latest interruption. It was an email, from the QC department. Its entire text was a link to an instructional video, “How To Wash Your Hands”. “Ohfergawdssake!”, he muttered aloud as he consigned the message to trash, with perhaps more emphatic clicking of the mouse than was strictly needed. “I’m 54 years old. I haven’t needed instruction on washing hands since my mother did it when I was potty trained. Give me a …”
“TenSHUN!!!” The command rocketed through the spare bedroom that Darren used for his home office. He turned in his rickety chair to see a man in camouflage fatigues, a campaign hat, and a really nasty expression on his face, staring him down.
“What the f….!”
The uniformed man snatched Darren out of his seat in mid-epithet, hauled him to his feet, and snarled up his nose.
“When I call you to attention, I expect you to come to attention, pansy. And without the language!”
“I don’t know who you are or what you’re doing here,” Darren squeaked, “but I don’t think that this qualifies as social distancing.”
“Viruses bite me and die, Dar-elict!”, the uniformed man snapped. “Which is more than I can say for pansies like you.” The man half threw, half dropped Darren into a position somewhat resembling attention. “Now stand up straight!” Darren tried. The result wasn’t pretty, and his visitor was quick to say so.
“Gaw-damn, wuss, I oughta take you bowling! I’d get a strike every time! At least I’d get some use out of you!” The man stepped out of Darren’s line of direct sight, reached for one of his uniform pockets. Darren turned his head to watch him.
“Eyes front!!”, the soldier yelled. “Don’t you eyeball me!” Which meant that Darren had to use his peripheral vision to see that the soldier had sergeant’s stripes on his arm, and had drawn white gloves out of a pocket and was putting them on.
“White gloves, sergeant?”
“Yeah”, the sergeant growled, “so I can show you what a piss-poor job your mother did of teaching you to wash your hands. Or anything else.” He scraped the white-gloved fingers of his right hand across the pressboard table that Darren used as his computer workspace. The fingertips came up black. “See that? Jee-suss Christ, wuss. I don’t know what’s filthier, you or your space. How do you stand yourself?!?”
“I thought this white-gloves thing was thought up by snooty harridan matrons to scare 1950s housewives into buying cleaning products.”
“Do I look like a housewife, Dar-elict?”, the soldier demanded.
“No, but you might be a harridan.”
“I should break you, pansy. Pull all your petals off and toss them to the wind. But I’ve got orders. And I follow them. Unlike you cretins. It was the military that started the white glove inspections. And I don’t suppose you have any clue why.”
“So you can keep your troops paranoid?”
“So we can keep them alive, idiot. Before medical miracles like vaccines and antibiotics, armies lost more men to disease than to ordnance, dammit. The only way we had to stop disease was to keep the men and their surroundings clean. And I mean clean. No filth to harbor vermin, no dust to breed germs. None of this”, the sergeant waggled the soiled fingertips of his gloves in Darren’s face, “you filthy puke.”
Darren held his body stiff, his head rigid, but his face turned a bright scarlet.
“Don’t like discipline, do you?”, the sergeant sneered. “None of you pukes do! Didn’t think you had to put up with any, didn’t you? Thought that the miracles of heroic medicine since the 1950s would last forever, and you could wallow in the muck and be OK. The drugs would fix everything. Well, I’ve got news for you pukes. Your time is running out. The germs are winning the race now. You think this one is bad, the next one will make this one look like patty-cake on the merry-go-round. You can learn discipline”, the sergeant leaned in and screamed at Darren’s eyes, “from the likes of me and like it! Or“, he backed away, “you can get slapped with the germ du jour and die. Or maybe not die and wish you had. Just like in the good old days – meaning practically all of human history. Which is it going to be, puke?”
Darren was too busy breathing heavily to answer.
The sergeant marched to the doorway to Darren’s office, spun on his heel to face Darren one last time, drew himself up. “You, and this pigsty of yours, will pass inspection on my next round. Or else!” He vanished.
* * * * * *
Murc’s computer chimed. He looked across from the programming terminal to the admin screen. Marnie wanted to talk with him. Murc clicked “Join”, and in a few seconds he was saying “Hi” to Marnie’s boyish, thirtysomething face.
“Hi back”, Marnie said.
“What?”, Murc questioned. “Is my camera misadjusted or something? Looks OK to me.”
“How come you’re seeing my back instead of my face?”
“I could say something about which one was the better looking, but you sign my timecards so I won’t”, Marnie shot back, grinning. “And on the weirdness meter, it doesn’t even register.” The grin collapsed. “How long did you say we were going to be on lockdown, again?”
“Officially, two weeks”, Murc replied, then continued. “Unofficially, don’t count on two weeks being anywhere near enough.”
“Oy”, Marnie sighed in reply. “I don’t know if we’ll be able to make it, Murc.”
“Telecommuting not working for everybody, hm?”, Murc mused.
“Are you kidding?!?”, Marnie squeaked. “It was bad enough keeping the rumors and bizarre stories in check when everybody was onsite. Now? Yesterday, Cort claimed that his laptop tried to assimilate him! Just an hour ago, Darren whined that a drill instructor showed up in his house, out of nowhere, and lectured him about being clean! I half expect to hear tomorrow that one of our staff has found a guy building an ark in his back yard!”
“Probably Eoin”, Murc cracked.
“…ooooOOOOOooo”, Marnie tooted. “Starting your own rumors, huh?”
“Gotta laugh a little bit,” Murc replied, “or else we’re all go whacky. Whacky tabacky. Maybe we should send out a note indicating that the company drugs policy applies while you’re on company time, even when you’re at home.”
“If this goes on”, Marnie responded in a sombre tone, “we may all need the drugs, company policy be damned. Assuming we can get any. Thanks for letting me unload, Murc. Peace out.”
“Bye”, Murc said, and closed the connection, shaking his head.