$1.00. I need to hold a dollar. In my hand. Across my palm. To calm me down. I need to calm down.
A headline scrolled across her laptop screen. The virus was spreading. China, Italy, New York, the whole USA. Novel corona virus disease 2019. CO-VI-D-19. Death and dying spreading exponentially.
“Oh God,” she closed her eyes to the fragments of memory. Biology class. Microscopes. Petri dishes slathered with microorganisms. Gentian violet-stained bright purple bacteria that the teacher swore were harmless. But she knew. Even then she always knew that was a lie.
She opened her eyes. A new email flashed open and she bent to read it even as she felt it closing in on her.
“Shit,” she said. There it was, the clarion call of her life collapsing. She clicked off the email with the news of her lay-off. Of everyone’s lay-off. She pressed her palms to her forehead. She was all alone.
She slammed her laptop closed. She needed to regain control.
Go get a dollar from the cookie jar.
She looked toward the kitchen. A fat ceramic jar covered in purple flowers sat on the counter. Next to it was an antique napkin holder filled with white cocktail napkins stamped with the logo of the bar she worked at. All unemployed now. Indefinitely.
The sick feeling hollowing out her belly deepened. She needed this job. The paycheck, the tips, this apartment she had finally found for herself right before her mother died and now there was nowhere else to go.
“Damn. Damn. Damn,” she muttered. Everything was going so well, she thought. You were finally normal. Christ. Laid off. You can’t be laid off. Not now.
She wrapped her arms across her chest. She had to stop this.
Get that dollar, girl. Hold it in your hand. Let it work its secret OCD magic.
She went into the kitchen and reached for the cookie jar where she stashed her tips every night in ritual celebration of her triumph over her germaphobia.
Suddenly she stopped, her hand in midair, pallid and clammy. She stared at her palms.
“Oh god, no,” she cried. It was starting again.
Her hands, it seemed, were crawling with the virus. Thousands of predatory pathogens writhing and wriggling across her palms, her fingers, her wrists. Germs. Germs. Crawling everywhere. Just like they used to do before all the therapy. All the meds. All the delay, delay, delay the OCD rituals like the therapist said. “Change the ritual. Change the response.” All the role playing and practicing and pretending to be David slaying her own Goliath.
She shook her hands.
“Get off!” she sputtered, and wiped at her hands, at the invisible vermin contaminating her again.
She turned on the faucet with the back of her wrist the way she used to and with her elbow pumped hand soap one, two, three—always three—and began to wash and wash and wash her hands. The germaphobe’s first ritual of purification.
“Out, out, you parasites!” she snarled. She ran her hands under the faucet and imagined the microbes sliding away, slithering helplessly down the drain,
“Cleanse your hands, you sinner,” a preacher on her Granny’s Sunday church show had said and she had remembered it.
She opened the bottom drawer with her foot and took out a clean cup towel.
Do not come back, you bloody germaphobia. Do not do this, she thought.
She dried her hands, three long slow strokes from her wrists to her fingers, the sanctity she found in threes.
She pursed her lips and breathed out slowly.
You beat it, remember, she told herself. No more germaphobia. Do not let it come back. You worked too hard. You got a job. You made money. You have a life. An independent life. You showed them all.
It had taken her ten years to overcome this. Ten years of peering inward, staring down her obsession with germs, smothering it into submission. Ten years of white knuckling through therapy slowing her down, breaking the patterns, inching her closer and closer each year to touching that doorknob, grabbing that bus strap. Ten years of first this drug, then that. Ten years of talk, talk, talk before she could finally stop washing and washing and washing her hands after every meeting or meal or minor encounter with the billions of unwashed surfaces on the planet.
Ten years searching for forgiveness, for baptism, purgation, peace.
“Fire and ice, Lord,” her granny used to say and then she would quote scripture, “’Wash us, and we shall be whiter than snow.’”
Fire and ice, she had thought as a child. They must be magic.
“Fire and ice,” she said.
But she had done it, one microbe at a time. Exposure therapy they called it.
“First, pet a dog,” said her therapist.
Then: “Dig a garden.”
Stick your fingers into the dirt and feel those microorganisms all around you.
She had done that.
“Now, get a job,” said the therapist.
Something unsanitary. Something dirty.
And she had done that. Gotten a job. And not just any old job, with its run of the mill germs.
She got a job awash in microbes.
Bartending. Mixology. She had immersed herself in the sweat and filth and grime of nightlife and become a barkeep, tending to dirty, drunken souls. Ceremonially sprinkling water into their drinks, sparkling tonic. Restorative and pure.
She’d thrown herself into her new livelihood with the same OCD precision she had brought to her quest for purification. Salvation through mixology—concocting with an alchemist’s passion for combining mystical elements into curative brews. So many ounces of this spirit or that, a splash of Angostura bitters, a dash of salt, a wedge of lime, the list went on.
The Dirty Martini had become her specialty, an inside joke she shared with herself, clean freak turned master of the Dirty Martini. It was a dance, really, that she performed every night with her regulars. Her Dirty Martini devotees, Don and Dewayne and Deborah who would come in from a day of pushing papers and order a round of Dirty Martinis, and she would get to work.
She would warm up her fingers—one, two, three—and gather the ingredients, while her regulars watched—she the sanctifying barkeep and they her devoted parishioners. The Church of the Dirty Martini, they called it, and Deborah would laugh, and Dewayne would call dibs on the toast, and Don would watch her as she moved silently behind the bar.
She reached up to the call shelf behind her and took down the Stoli (if Don were paying) or Grey Goose (if Dewayne) or, Square One. the favored domestic, (if Deborah was up), though when they were broke, they motioned silently for the rail brand, and she always complied. No money. No judgment. How could she? She just reached under the bar for the Smirnoff or Georgi and grabbed the vermouth, the Martini & Rossi, the extra dry, unless of course it was payday and they asked for the primo. Carpano Bianco. Italino speciale.
Out came the Spanish queen olives or manzanillas, off came the screw tops, and the jars sat waiting on the counter for the barkeep to pick up her shaker, the polished, monogramed steel bullet of her trade she had bought herself when she’d landed the bartending job.
Get a job. Something dirty.
She held the shaker, cold and smooth and painless, and filled it three quarters with crushed ice.
She held out her 2-ounce jigger like a test tube in chem class so long ago, and measured, slowly, 6 ounces of vodka—one jigger, two jiggers, three jiggers, done—and poured the clear hard liquid into the shaker. Next came three splashes of vermouth and three of brine, a glance, a shy smile at Don who sat following the dance of her hands as they shook and shook the shaker. “Shaken, not stirred,” she murmured to Don, like James Bond to a priestess. A full 30 seconds of silent movement, just her and the shaker and Don holding his breath, until the Dirty Martinis were colder than cold.
She set the shaker down gently, gently like a crystal vase and reached into the freezer behind her and pulled out three chilled martini glasses and slowly, carefully strained the martinis into them, the brine curling slowly like a rip tide. She speared two olives each and perched them, pimento side up on the rim of the glasses. Cleansing the bar for the tenth time with her bright white towel, she laid fresh cocktail napkins down and softly, softly set the Dirty Martinis in front of Don and Dwayne and Deborah, an offering to the Martini Gods. They lifted their drinks between their fingers like communion wafers and brought them to their lips in unison.
Rebirth by libation.
“Oh darlin’,” Dewayne exhaled. “You know how to rock my world,” and Deborah, not to be outdone, reached over and squeezed his thigh.
Sometimes Don, when he was feeling especially flirty, would order a round of “Filthy” Martinis with a wink and curl of his lip—which had thrown her at first (A man? Could I really be with a man? Another human being? What is that like?) but she had just grinned and added two more dashes of olive brine. Then, looking at Don like a gangster’s surgeon extracting a bullet, she’d pulled the pimento out with a toothpick and waved it before him with a smirk. (Where did you learn to do that, you flirt? Do you know what you’re doing?) Grinning, she’d gulped down the pimento and wedged in a sliver of blue cheese in its place.
“Now that is a dirty, filthy martini, my lady,” Don had said looking truly debauched, and she’s smiled a triumphant smile.
Damn, girl, you have an exquisitely normal life, she had thought. Bravo.
Every now and then a weathered old guy—Gus, she thought was his name—would amble in and order a Jameson’s neat—neat—and she and he would share a smile, one neat freak to another. She took special care, measuring an ounce and half of the amber liquid (adding another half pour as a reward)—a prize for the man who takes his liquor neat.
Neat to neat.
And then, then would come the real payoff—after the Dirty Martinis and the Jameson’s neat and everything in between—came the sliding of dollars across the bar—a ten-spot from Don for the Filthy Martini, a fiver from Gus, peace offerings to her OCD heart. She took the bills and held them beneath the bar and ran her fingers once over the face of Washington or Lincoln or Alexander Hamilton, then again once across the bill’s back, and finally once across the Treasury seal in a long slow swipe, the magnetic pull of money soothing her, calming her fluttering heart with her one stroke, two strokes, three strokes. Divine, she thought, like her granny.
It had saved her, this secret ritual she had made for herself. Over and over she would do this all night, three long strokes of the bills in the same direction, no one ever the wiser, and then she’d open the cash drawer and lay each bill to rest in its own special bed with its brother and sister bills. The ones here, the fives there, tens next door, twenties off to the side. The rare fifty or hundred slipped underneath.
Oh, it had been glorious, these secret nightly delights across her palm—delight after delight all around really, her boss, her customers, the pregnant register growing fatter each night with the fruits of her labor.
She stood in her kitchen holding the towel and staring at the cookie jar. Inside were her darlings. Her partners in fighting her obsession. Dollar bills, fives, tens, the occasional twenty.
Get your dollar, girl. Just hold it in your hand. Pretend like it’s your pay. Your reward.
Her new ritual. The sweet balm of dollars crossing her palm, her balm in Gilead, her final ticket out of her phobia, out of the paralyzing fear of germs that had ruined her life for ten years. She had been a recluse living in her childhood room in her mother’s house. Unemployable.
Mocked by the very family she labored to protect.
She could almost hear her mother’s voice coming out of the photo by the window in the kitchen.
She whirled around to the bookshelf filled with family photos, the few who had loved her, never-minding her affliction, and the ones who had clucked at her, blessing her heart with all the phoniness they had in them.
“Don’t look at me like that,” she said, pointing to the photo of her mom dressed in her signature sundress and straw hat with the yellow rose blossoms. “Don’t you dare say it. Don’t you dare tell me you told me so. That I wouldn’t be able to ever be on my own unless I got over my—what did you call it? ‘My irrational fear of germs.’”
“‘Little dirt never hurt nobody,’ you said. Oh God, Mama, how many times did you say that?”
She stared at the photo of her late mother smiling coquettishly at the photographer. Next to it sat a photo of an old woman in a violet needlepoint vest, smiling a Mona Lisa smile. Her grandmother.
“But I showed them, Granny,” she said. “I got better. I licked it. ‘Germaphobia.”
I petted that dog, she thought. I dug that garden. I became a bartender, for Christ’s sake, one step up from a garbage collector. A barkeep, surrounded by horny, drunk people pumping out who knows what kinds of secretions.
“I mixed their drinks,” she said to her grandmother’s photo. “Their Dirty Martinis. Perfectly. I am a perfect mixologist, Granny. You would be proud of me. ‘A genius with a shot glass,” Dewayne calls me. ‘An artist behind the bar,’ Don says. And I touched their money, their ones and fives and those dollars made me whole.”
I lived a normal life.
She swatted at the air.
Until now, you microbial buggers, she thought. Playing with the germaphobe. Is this some kind of sadistic joke?
“I will beat you again, germaphobia. I already traded you in, remember? Swapped you for something that made sense, let me into the exclusive club called ‘the mainstream economy.’”
Getting paid, she thought. Having dollars cross my palm like an offering to the Gods. People passing me money from their hand to mine, their hand to mine, their hand to mine.
She stroked her palm.
It felt so fine, she thought. Holding that money. Making a living, earning my keep, bringing home the bacon—the trichinosis-filled bacon—on my own.
“You stupid phobia,” she muttered.
Don’t you dare think you can just come back and muck this up, she thought. Make me forget about my new secret-one-two-three-hold-a-dollar-make me-normal ritual? A nice, discrete sweet thing that nobody notices, nobody laughs at, it’s just me and my fine, fine feeling holding that money. You think I’m gonna let you take this happiness from me?
“And don’t you start up with your damn ‘I told you so’s.’ like Mama,” she hissed. “I don’t want to hear it.”
She was breathing hard.
“OK, calm down, girl,” she said and wrapped
her arms around herself again.
Let’s do this thing, Stroke that dollar like it was money made. Non-essential worker be damned. You are essential.
She should wash her hands, she thought. Again.
She turned the water back on with her wrist, pressed down on the hand soap and began to rub over and under her fingers, across her knuckles, above her wrists the way they she did for all those years, the way morning show hosts now demonstrate.
“Sing Happy Birthday twice,” the perky tv hosts chirp, rubbing their manicured hands together and smiling at the camera.
Happy Birthday, hell, better to go with Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy, she thought, remembering how it had spoken to her so long ago in high school English class, her teacher breaking the lines down into chunks of guilt and madness. Guilt and madness, my old friends, she’d thought, and secretly she’d begun to recite this speech of purgation as she washed and washed and washed her hands all those years ago. Over and over she had spoken it in her head, swaying back and forth over the sink, her eyes closed, the Bard whispering in her ear: “You are not alone,” and from among the depths he had beckoned a whole carnival of obsessed souls for her to rest among. Princes and queens, faeries and beasts, ghosts and betrayers, etched out in her mind’s eye offering solace from her torments. They too knew the constancy of fears.
Now, standing in her kitchen, her hands slathered with soap, she again summoned Lady McB and spoke her words:
“Out, damned spot! out, I say!—One: two: why,
then, 'tis time to do't.—Hell is murky!—Fie, my
lord, fie! a soldier, and afeard? What need we
fear who knows it, when none can call our power to
She ran her hands under the water, turned it off with her elbow and took out a clean cup towel. She wiped her face and dried her hands.
Holding the cup towel she took the lid off the cookie jar.
Again, she froze. She looked around. Barbeque tongs stuck up from a fat ceramic canister that matched the fat cookie jar, both inherited from her grandmother, both adorned with tiny purple hyssop flowers, symbols of purification. She grabbed the tongs with the towel and peered into the cookie jar.
She pulled out a one-dollar bill. It dangled at the end of the tongs like limp lettuce.
She stopped, staring at the dollar bill.
You can do this. Money across the palm like before.
She reached toward the dollar to stroke it across her palm. She would feel better.
But she stopped, her hand in the air, her chest pounding, sweat gathering on her face, the back of her neck.
They were there again. The vermin. Crawling across the dollar like demons. Millions of tiny pathogens multiplying like in the Petri dish. Overflowing onto the table, filling the biology lab.
She closed her eyes.
No, no, no, no! Don’t do this, you brain-dead phobia. Do not take this from me, you jealous bitch, she thought.
She started to shake, the dollar bill at the end of the tongs jerking like a dead animal.
“Damn you, phobia,” she hissed at the dollar. She shook her head and the tongs and bill fell to the ground.
“I will not let you ruin my life again,” she grabbed a saucepan, filled it with water, and put it on the stove. She turned the burner on high.
Blue flames flared up.
She stared at the beautiful blue, cleansing flames licking the pot, its copper bottom darkening. Flames blue as the veins rippling across her Granny’s hands, bruised and blackened and dying there among the tubes and needles they said would keep her alive, the liars.
Liars. They were all liars, she thought.
She looked at the photo of her mother. “You lied, Mama,” she said. “A little dirt can kill somebody. Granny got sick and weak. Too weak to eat. Too weak to go to church. Too weak to pray. Granny couldn’t even pray, Mama. She couldn’t even hold her beloved hyssop flowers to cleanse herself from whatever piddly sins she thought she had.
“‘Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean,’ she used to say, remember? She was too weak to smell her flowers, and she was damn sure too weak to fight off the germs. Those little buggers you said were harmless.
“Granny died, Mama. Those ‘harmless’ little buggers killed her.”
Don’t you understand? she had wanted to shout to her mother at her Granny’s funeral. My little buggers killed her. I brought my sweaty adolescent germs into her room. It was all my fault Granny died with her sins uncleansed.
erms had killed her granny. She’d seen them under the microscope. Thousands of them. Everywhere. On her hands, her hair. Grotesque, predatory little buggers ready to attack. She had to make sure it would not happen again. Not to her or her mother or anyone.
She turned back to the stove and watched the fire dance under the pot. Her hands began to flicker in unison. The water began to boil, roiling and bubbling like an angry sea god avenging her grandmother’s death.
“God is a consuming fire,” she remembered the preacher saying. It had comforted her then and it comforted her now.
She smiled. I will make it right, Granny, she thought. I will make them pay, the predatory little buggers that took you from me.
She grabbed the towel and picked up the dollar bill with the tongs.
“Take that,” she whispered as she plunged the dollar bill into the boiling water. Instantly, it began to undulate, rising and falling in spasms, the placid face of George Washington gurgling among the bubbles.
“Die, you evil buggers,” she said. “You pestilence, you pox.”
Boil their bodies. Dissolve their insides. Let them scream with their invisible mouths. See if I care.
“Boil, buggers, boil,” she whispered, and she started to laugh.
A deep, uncontrollable laugh came from some dark place inside her. She collapsed on the linoleum and started to cry. Huge, gasping sobs like convulsions.
I can’t do this again, she thought. I can’t go back. I can’t. Save me. Oh Lord, save me.
Above her, steam billowed from the pot.
Finally, she stopped. She sat spent and panting on the floor until her breath slowed and she reached up and turned off the burner, the blue flames disappearing.
She stood and watched the water grow still, the dollar bill slowly settling to the bottom of the pan. The dead microbes dissolving, disappearing back into whatever evil place they came from.
She fished the dollar bill out with the tongs. She pulled out a fresh towel, laid the wet dollar bill on top and blotted it.
She inhaled and placed the dollar bill in her hand.
She stroked it once across George Washington’s face.
Then once across the one-eyed pyramid on the back.
And finally across the Treasury seal on the front.
And there it was again, the sweet release of equilibrium, all the mitochondria in her body suddenly able to breathe again.
You didn’t kill her, girl. You didn’t. Your Granny was just too sick.
She slid down and sat on the floor, holding the one dollar like a newborn babe.
She closed her eyes and felt her Granny come to her, wrapping her arms around her again and stroking her hair. “It’s all right child,” her granny said, and finally it was. All better.
All better. All better.
Elizabeth Bruce’s debut novel, And Silent Left the Place, (to be re-released in 2021) won Washington Writers’ Publishing House’s Fiction Award, ForeWord Magazine’s Bronze Fiction Prize, and was one of two finalists for the Texas Institute of Letters’ Steven Turner Award for Best Work of First Fiction. Bruce has published prose in the USA, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Malawi, India, Yemen, and The Philippines, including in: FireWords Quarterly, Pure Slush, takahē magazine, Spadina Literary Review, The Bangalore Review, Literally Stories, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Attic Door Press, Inklette, The Elixir Magazine, The McKinley Review, Lines & Stars, ‘Merica Magazine, Olive Press, The Remembered Arts, The Nthanda Review, ppigpenn, Eos: The Creative Context, Human Noise Journal, Degenerate Literature, BareBack Magazine, and The Washington Post.