Instead of casseroles, the CDC caseworker brought the new widow a cardboard box of food. Canned corn. Dried beans. Prunes. A preprinted label declared this box appropriate for the widow’s age and weight.
“It’s not usually quite enough,” the caseworker said inside his respirator.
She coughed into her elbow, and he peered at her closely before continuing.
“Call me if that cough gets worse. We might need to run more tests. Anyway, if you only eat these rations, slight weight loss is expected. A couple, three pounds a week. Call me if you lose more.”
He handed her a card, shut the front door, and taped it closed.
Her husband had died in their bed. After they took him away, and before they taped her in, the CDC had wrapped the mattress in plastic and carted it off.
She unearthed a sleeping bag. For the first time since her marriage, she slept on a pillow that didn’t smell like him.
A knock on the door she couldn’t open. The widow put aside her can of tuna. Her mother-in-law (is that still right?) looked through the narrow window beside the door and waved her phone, then dialed.
The widow’s cell rang, and she answered it.
“I wanted to tell you in person,” said her late mother-in-law (no; his mother isn’t dead). “Smithy’s funeral home had a last-minute cancellation.”
“Tomorrow,” said her late husband’s mother (that’s it). “We must fit these things in while we can. Sadie says memorial services are the next gatherings to be banned, and you know who her daughter is.”
The widow nodded up and down, but that felt wrong. She tried side to side.
Her late husband’s mother jutted out her chin. “My son deserves a service. A man of his accomplishment. I deserve closure.”
Retroactively, the widow comprehended everything. “I am his wife.” (Am? Was?) “I need closure.”
“I know, dear. When they let you out, I’ll show you the photos.”
From the front picture window, the widow could see a line of cars with headlights on pulling slowly in front of her house.
The widow’s sister trudged through snow to the window and placed her palm against it. No glove. The widow did the same, covering her sister’s hand with her own, feeling cold glass instead of her sister’s soap-and-water rough skin. Her sister made way for a neighbor, who made way for a family friend, and so on, each placing their palms one by one on the same spot.
Dread roosted on the widow as fingerprints accumulated. “Go home,” she shouted. “Scrub your hands!” But her voice wasn’t loud enough to travel through glass, or perhaps she hadn’t spoken out loud.
Inside, her hand stayed on the glass. Outside, breath condensed on the window in a fog, unable to dissipate before the next person breathed it in.
Katie Venit lives in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and works by day as an instructional designer. Her work has appeared in Literary Mama, Spelk, Cabinet of Heed, and Wisconsin Public Radio’s Wisconsin Life. She sits on the advisory board for the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild. She posts the occasional sentence diagram at www.katievenit.wordpress.com.