Pesthouse by Katie Anderson

Photo of bedroom
Photo by Andrea Davis on Unsplash

 

The first year of the pandemic lockdown was the worst for Frankie and PJ. Most of their time was spent worrying about the health of Frankie’s Mom and then PJ’s Mom and then as it turned out all that worry was for nothing because they both died anyway. Due to the pandemic there was no funeral service, but both moms had been fiscally savvy and left considerable sums of which eased the pain a little.

Not surprisingly, PJ’s mom went first. Her smoking and general laziness made her a prime target for this strain of the virus. Once when PJ asked her when she had started smoking, her mother replied “I don’t know. When most kids start smoking, maybe around thirteen?” PJ did the math, that was seventy-seven years of smoking without any cancer or COPD. But her mother had been diagnosed with coronary artery disease and had not told anyone. When PJ would ask about her Mom’s health her mom would mention that the doctor had told her to lose weight but that there were no other issues. When PJ’s Mom first became visibly sick, she went to her physician for what appeared to be a bad cold. It was the flu, which developed into pneumonia, then she caught the virus and died a week later. Frankie‘s Mother was a whole other story. Younger by a decade then PJ’s mom, she was seemingly quite healthy, playing tennis even. She twisted an ankle while hiking and fell. The fall dislocated her shoulder and fractured her humerus. When she was at the hospital, she was so relieved to hear that she didn’t need surgery, just a stay at a rehab center. Although she had a private room and was quite diligent in trying to protect herself, she contracted the virus at the rehab center and soon, she too, was dead.

Now into their fifties, PJ and Frankie jokingly called themselves orphans. But at their age it was nice to not worry about their parents anymore. They felt like real adults for possibly the first time in their lives. Their own children were grown and out of the house. Their oldest daughter, always the good student, grew into a competent person. She graduated from college in four years and because of her technical skills was making what her parents considered to be a ridiculous salary. They knew that they should be happy for their daughter and her success but somewhere deep inside a resentment was there. It was undeniable.

Their son on the other hand couldn’t give a hoot about money, never went to college, and started working at a call center as soon as he graduated from high school. He, like his sister, was adept at computers and able to get some software certifications that wedged him into a comfortable living. He had a roommate, played video games all day and saved his money. Neither child called very much. Wasn’t much of a need to. They kept up with each other on social media which was good enough for all of them.

Other families got together for the holidays but PJ and Frankie didn’t see the point. The kids were hundreds of miles away, too far for a drive and flying had become out of the question since the pandemic. They weren’t religious, sort of indifferent to the whole Thanksgiving thing and liked the solitude after their children moved out. Other people were busy making arrangements for big, extended family gatherings but Frankie and PJ didn’t even see their own kids. When asked about holiday plans PJ told her friends “We’re all doing our own thing this year . . .” The pandemic had given them the excuse they needed to stop Holiday gatherings all together. PJ had had to tell her son that it was Thanksgiving a few times because he had forgotten.

Some days it seemed like they would never get together again. Their kids had made it known that they didn’t want children of their own. In their quieter moments, Frankie and PJ wondered if they had somehow tainted parenthood, or been such bad parents that their kids hated the whole idea. Their daughter claimed to have no time for a family and the son said that he accidentally killed a fish once because he forgot to feed it. He had wanted to adopt a cat until Frankie reminded him that he was allergic. When Frankie suggested a hypoallergenic dog his son had said “just forget it.” So they both did.

It’s not that they had been bad parents or neglectful parents, but they were dutiful parents. They did what they had to do like a job. Raising children is a job, that’s why they called having them going into labor. It was laborious. PJ had scarified her body and Frankie had sacrificed his freedom. The school fees, the music lessons, the solid suburban school district, the endless nights of walking floors with babies, changing diapers, worrying about mystery illnesses and rashes bumps and lumps is labor. So, it really should not have surprised PJ and Frankie so much that their children were indifferent to parenting themselves but as a parent you always second-guess, you always do.

Now with both of their parents dead in the same year, PJ and Frankie talked a lot about parenting how they were parented and how their children would parent were they to be parents which didn’t seem very likely at this point. Both PJ and Frankie had had parents that made no secret about the work. But when they were raised, the families were larger, the money was stable, and the expectations seemed to be clearer. Go to school, get a job, choose a normative partner and on those occasions when you do something bad, don’t get caught and if you’re caught ask to see your attorney. When in doubt do what everybody else is doing.

In the network TV world PJ and Frankie had grown up in, personal choices seemed so limited. The shopping malls were the same no matter where you were, always anchored by a Sears or a JC Penney’s store. The #1 top forty song in America was the #1 top song in NYC as well as LA. Job titles had names that made sense and most families were only as good as their Father’s respective careers.

After lots of discussion, PJ and Frankie decided that their own parents had a much better go at it, the parenting, the careers, the whole bit. Social norms were clearer, and jobs were predictable and you kept to yourself. Their parents had been of the silent generation, those people who were too young for World War II too old for Vietnam. Being born during the depression made their parents frugal and hardworking and stable. Although none of their parents had blue collar type jobs, they had worked their way up through their respective companies and had sizable pensions. PJ’s Mom had been a diligent investor, too and had started in the early 1980’s when the market was hot.

The estate checks came in slowly 10,000 here 35,000 there and it kept piling into the savings account that PJ and Frankie had had for years. They first spent money on the house, repairing little things here and there and then paid off what was left of the mortgage. Due to the pandemic they had not been going out to spend money. They hadn’t bought clothes or haircuts and PJ hadn’t had her nails done or bought a new purse in over a year. She found that she didn’t need her creature comforts not facing the world. By the end of the third year of the pandemic between the saving and the estate monies, they had over one million dollars invested, a paid off house perfect credit and no major expenses in their future.

Many people had lost their jobs during the pandemic and as it went on new business popped up and old businesses went away. PJ and Frankie had both maintained government contract jobs and transitioned to working at home. Their jobs were boring, repetitive computer tasks that could easily be done by a robust software system. They knew they were replaceable but also we’re adept at flying under the radar. They had previously had offices which were completely unused. Frankie’s former cubicle was now being used to store cleaning supplies.

Sometimes PJ would drive by her old building and wonder if she should go in and get her family pictures off of her desk. She thought of all the dying plants sitting on her coworkers desks. She didn’t know that the night cleaning crew was still watering these plants although they had eaten all of the candy out of everyone’s candy dishes that were left out.

PJ used the time that she used to spend commuting tracking the real estate listings in her neighborhood on Zillow. PJ was amazed with the changes in the housing market and would say to Frankie “oh my God it’s gone up again. How far can it go?”. Suddenly these suburban nothing slab homes looked like glorious mansions with their three bedrooms and one-and-a-half baths and off street parking. Their home in Maryland was initially purchased for just over $100,000 and at the time, they thought that was so very expensive. Now the house was worth three times as much. They hadn’t intended the home to be an investment, just a place to live. With the pandemic raging on and on, the real estate market was bananas. People working from their condos and apartments that littered the DC beltway were like caged tigers. Living in a 750 square-foot space doing double duty as both a home and a workplace was growing untenable. People would stretch their budget to ridiculous ends to buy homes, anything with a separate bedroom. There were tales of people working from their bathrooms because there was no other place where they could get away from the noise of their roommate or housemate or partner or boyfriend or girlfriend that was living under the same roof. People were freaking out. Some properties didn’t even need to be listed and there were many bidding wars with people offering $30,000 over the asking price. The realtors may have been happy, but the lack of inventory made their jobs harder.

There were other excesses in the real estate market besides the single family homes. In resort and ocean fronts, there was a glut of large vacation homes. Homes that people had bought as investments to rent to vacationing families sat vacant and hemorrhaged money due to the pandemic. Three-million-dollar homes were going for half that amount. PJ was following several houses in the Outer Banks of North Carolina and would say “look Frankie, this one has a hot tub on every single deck. Three decks and three hot tubs, that’s crazy!” Frankie would chuckle but he knew that she was planning.

When PJ mentioned to friends that she was looking at homes in the Outer Banks they would scoff “you know those homes are going to be gone soon. Climate change.” Frankie’s friends would say “Let me know when you move, we can go catch us some speckled trout.” When PJ brought up the climate change to Frankie he reminded her that Southern California hadn’t fallen into the ocean yet. Besides, who could plan for anything these days?

The pandemic has gone into its fourth year when Frankie and PJ decided to move. They had not seen their friends in so long and realized after a while that they were fine with that. Their days were filled with work, in the evenings they cooked a nice meal and watched movies and read books. Till one day PJ just told Frankie that she didn’t want to sit in that house and just wait for the next pandemic to take them both out.

Their house sold in two days. They only moved their clothing because the three story house they bought on the beach near Nags Head North Carolina had left all of the furniture. There were three stories, one for Frankie, one for PJ and one that they called the neutral territory as a joke. PJ stayed on the top floor with a deck that she sat on every morning to have coffee. There were no neighbors on either side of their new home. Eventually, Frankie dragged over the patio furniture from one of the homes as it looked like no one was going to claim it. There was also a beautiful terra-cotta planter that they nicked unabashedly.

Photo of rooms filled with sand
Photo by jean wimmerlin on Unsplash

They lived in that home all the rest of their years. Eventually a software was developed to replace their jobs but not before they were able to retire. Their children continued with their lives and even when the virus mutated and worsened, none of them got sick. The people who survived were the people who stayed in playing video games or reading. And when the hurricanes came, as hurricanes do in North Carolina, PJ and Frankie ignored the pleas to leave the area and evacuate. PJ would lay on her stomach and watch the storms blow in and let the sound of the wind put her to sleep.


Katie Anderson
Katie Anderson is a writer based in Norfolk, Virginia. Katie’s personal essays have been featured in Rabble Lit, Huffington Post and TMI Project She interviewed comedians and authors to talk about their work and business for the long gone AltDaily. Katie and her partner, Tim, like listening to records and hanging out with their cats. Pesthouse is her first published work of fiction. Find her on her website (www.lowermiddleclassy.com), Twitter (@oldpunkkatie), and Clubhouse (@ktwriter).

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