The Time Everyone in Birchwood Village Came Together Even While They Were Ordered to Stay Apart
These were frightening times for the residents of Birchwood Village, with everyone ordered to shelter in place and stay six feet apart to slow the spread of this dreadful virus. For they were, by their very nature, a social lot, gathering together for numerous occasions: the Independence Day Celebration, and the Harvest Fall (or was it the Fall Harvest?) Festival, and the annual City-Wide Yard Sale, to name just a few. And how distressing that this would happen now, in early spring when everybody was already itching to get out and about after another typically harsh and dreary winter.
The dogwood and the crabapple and the sugar hackberry trees were in bloom. The traditional Friday night fish fry at the Birchwood Village Church had begun with the mouth-watering sound of sizzling oil. And preparations were well underway for the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, with Old Man Williams already chosen as Grand Marshal in appreciation of him so admirably stepping in as Santa Claus at last year’s Christmas parade after Hank Walters Bryant, the ranking member of the village council and “official” Birchwood Village Santa, suffered an unfortunate, yet fortunately not fatal, golf cart accident. Indeed, this was exactly when folks sought most to congregate. But the situation was not to be taken lightly, as doctors and scientists of impressive credentials were adamantly advising. Alas there was scant recourse but to heed these warnings and partake in social distancing.
At the outset panic overwhelmed this customarily composed community. There was an immediate run on eggs and milk and bread and plastic bottles of water (and even toilet paper!) at all of the stores and markets. Hand sanitizer became a hot commodity with some resorting to concocting it themselves from a mixture of aloe vera and booze, much to the chagrin of Mrs. Shuttleford, an unapologetic teetotaler. People yelled at each other for no good reason (not that there was really ever any good reason to yell at each other). Tempers flared, and nerves were frayed, and emotional outbursts were constant. Even Young Billy Milner, an enterprising eleven-year-old, on the cusp of turning twelve, usually so jovial and easy going, was involved in a serious spat with his best bud Chubz, the Johnson family cat. It was rumored that Officer Chadwick, the police officer from Ridgeland who was contracted out by Birchwood Village to patrol the streets in his off-hours, would be forced to impose martial law. Why the sun itself refused to shine, concealed behind clumps of thick gunmetal gray clouds. These were dark days for sure for Birchwood Village.
Then one evening, while assembling his regular snack of s’mores alone in his backyard by the warmth of a glowing fire pit, which had been the confluence of countless revelries in what now heartbreakingly seemed like the long distant past, Hank Walters Bryant decided then and there to take it upon himself, as the ranking member of the village council, to instill calm and civility amongst the citizenry. That next morning, bright and early, so early he happened upon Billy while the youngster was on his paper delivery route (and sadly he still had not made amends with Chubz), Hank took to the streets in the “official” village golf cart, being exceptionally cautious, especially rounding the corner at Swan and Forest — the locus of that unfortunate accident that left him with a tiny metal plate and even tinier metal screws in his thumb and worse, at least for Hank, unable to reprise his role as Jolly Old Saint Nick. He blared upbeat music on a boom box he had borrowed from one of the Johnson children, the oldest one, however old they were, and announced on a bullhorn that squealed with feedback that now was the time to come together — although instead of “now” he used “nigh” to convey a sense of urgency even whilst perhaps not a precise use of that word.
Initially the only reaction Hank received was from Mrs. Shuttleford, who did not suffer fools gladly, suspiciously peeking out from behind her red front door with brass accents, dressed in a flannel housecoat and fuzzy slippers, hastily, and rather sternly as was her way, rebuking with a disgusted wave of both hands such “hooliganism” and “from a ranking council member to boot.” Yet as she listened more intently, and once Hank had decreased the volume on the speaker, she nodded knowingly in agreement, in essence retracting her rebuking, a highly unusual tack for her to take but these were highly unusual circumstances.
In due course, more and more folks warily stepped forth to hear Hank’s message. “Nigh was the time to look out for one another, to respect our neighbors!” he continued, emboldened by the growing attention from the burgeoning group of lookie-loos, demonstratively throwing his arms about like some sort of great orator (if only in Hank’s mind). He reminded everyone how this community always pitched in to help each other, as they did when the Johnson’s house caught fire (and twice in one day!) or when Chubz went missing or when the power went out after a treacherous electrical storm rumbled through. If there were one thing the denizens of Birchwood Village could be counted on, it was to step up at the first signs of trouble. “So why should this be any different — we must come together nigh much more than ever!” Hank proclaimed with a flourish of power poses, and then promptly skidded into the weeping willow in Mrs. Patterson’s yard, much to the consternation of her hateful Maltese, Koukla, who barked at him incessantly from inside the house through the living room bay window until Mrs. Patterson drew the shades. But Hank’s point had been made.
Something quite interesting then transpired, for it was almost as if a switch had been flipped, and everyone became who they were before this calamity seemed to make them forget. Ted Robinson, a former DJ for the local public radio station who had hosted a program of blues standards during the overnight shift until the radio station went digital, and who was also quite computer proficient, reconfigured the Birchwood Village website into a video conferencing application, allowing residents to log on with their electronic devices to reconnect with one another, swapping stories and sharing advice and simply exchanging pleasantries, small talk about the weather, book and television recommendations, that sort of thing. Tom Canari was so taken by this innovation that he wondered aloud, “why haven’t we done this before?” and suggested in earnest, “we should do this more often,” which was met with a very awkward and stilted silence until he clarified, “without the virus of course.” There was general consensus with the sentiment, but the response was nonetheless tepid as no one much cared for Tom Canari.
Through this virtual meetup it was discovered that certain older residents and those otherwise more vulnerable to the disease were in dire need of assistance. So the Blenheim Boulevard Bird Club offered to go grocery shopping and deliver takeout food orders. The starting lineup of the St. Martins Dragons, the reigning regional Little League champs, divvied up lawn care chores — when they weren’t chasing each other with shovels and rakes. A group of renters who shared a two-bedroom suite at the Stonemill Apartments at the end of Blanchard next to the park prerecorded an impromptu concert, playing their guitars and bongo drums and tambourines, which they shared over the Internet. Sarah Delaney, a member of the gas and electric company’s road crew whose job was to put down markings on the pavement (multifarious, multicolored lines and arrows) to indicate the presence of buried gas, power, cable and water lines before construction, wrote phrases of optimism and encouragement in people’s driveways with paint she promised was meant to wash off after a few good rains.
There were others who were eager to get in on this action. Lila Durham, forced to temporarily shutter her upscale boutique in Poplar Square, created care packages with overstocked items (sundry tchotchkes, knick-knacks and bric-a-brac) and peanut butter crackers, juice boxes and booze-free hand sanitizer (to Mrs. Shuttleford’s approval). Lizzie Armstrong and Poindexter McGregor, who were rekindling their relationship after Lizzie, Poindexter’s ex-fiancée, had left him at the altar three years ago June to run off with a traveling circus performer of the sword-swallowing variety, covertly deposited these gift baskets on people’s doorsteps. Dwayne Weatherly, a dabbler in taxidermy, put his sewing skills to the test by fashioning face masks from old scarves, hand towels and bandanas donated by Naomi Persimmon. And Old Man Williams, who had rebounded from his disappointment at the cancellation of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade with the assurance that he would serve as the Grand Marshal for the next parade, offered unfettered access to his ham radio for anyone wishing to converse with loved ones and acquaintances abroad (though no one took him up on it, what with cellular phones and the like, it was a nice gesture and also kind of neat all the same).
As the days wore on, life gradually returned to normal in Birchwood Village, albeit a “new normal” (a phrase Hank Walters Bryant claimed to coin but most knew better) while the threat of this virus, and the order to shelter in place, both remained. People resumed their constitutionals, jogs and dog walks (with more frequency and increased participancy as this was one of the few activities still permitted, nay encouraged), while maintaining the requisite spacing of course. Some residents stood curbside chatting with others who stood just outside their homes, and vice versa. Children with a newfound sense of freedom since schools were closed, and unlimited energy since they were children, raced around in backyards at top speed. Several graduate students completed their courses online, and then chose another graduate degree to pursue. PJ Cross, a lawyer by trade who no longer wished to be a lawyer by trade, used this extended absence from the office to plan another vocation, preferable one that did not cause him indigestion. Billy and Chubz reconciled and were joyfully back to being buds. And plans were already being made for a community shindig on the grandest of scales, complete with inflatables and a snow cone machine, at the Birchwood Village Church once this crisis was over — and everyone was hopeful that this crisis would be over.
On a particularly clear evening, Hank Walters Bryant was so inspired by the efforts and actions of his fellow villagers that he initiated an executive decision, absent a quorum of the village counsel (which incidentally did not sit well with Lloyd Farnsby, Hank’s arch enemy for reasons best left unexplained), to set off fireworks left from the last Independence Day Celebration. The sky above Birchwood Village exploded and crackled and flashed with vibrant colors of red and green and silver and gold, streaking and bursting, popping and screeching and hissing, rendering everyone, as they watched from porches or stoops or out from opened windows or balconies, spellbound and speechless, nothing but soft ooh’s and subdued aah’s, all eyes focused above, and to the future, the time everyone in Birchwood Village came together even while they were ordered to stay apart.
This short story is based on characters from the collection (Mostly) True Stories from Birchwood Village. Some of the other stories in this collection — “The Time the Johnsons’ House Caught Fire,” “The Time Chubz the Cat Went Missing” and “The Time the Power Went Out in Birchwood Village” — have been published in The Saturday Evening Post. “The Time Santa Almost Didn’t Make it to Birchwood Village” was published on Medium.