First published in published in decomp journal ezine #4, “(en)visionary futures”, 2022. Copyright 2022 by Tetman Callis.

            It was neither the best of times, nor the worst of times. It was only what it was—a time of pandemic, economic collapse, and civil unrest. The trifecta, three winning horses of apocalypse—pestilence, famine, and war, in their contemporary colors.

            His skin was pale. He hadn’t gone outside for weeks. All dressed up and hell no, I won’t go. Careful what you touch! Stay away from people! World’s on lockdown, stay home!

            He had an emergency mask. It wasn’t cool. Why should he care about cool? He wasn’t a kid. It bothered him to care about cool, still care about it at his age—teetering on the brink of social insecurity—but he cared about it. His mask was one of a set of furniture sander’s masks he’d kept in storage twenty years, tucked in a taped-shut box in the basement. Kept them, never could tell, they may someday come in handy, hate to throw out something good he’d bought and paid for and never used.

            Then the someday came and they were handy again, these stashed-away masks, time to be of use. To go to the supermarket down by the bus station, to go to the liquor store around the corner and across the road, all persons had to be masked. A nation of masked men and women—superheroes? robbers? both and neither? Look into their eyes, if they made eye contact. Most didn’t. It was a big city, eye contact was an intuitive dance. But you could see, when the eyes met, the fear, suspicion, anger—is this your fault? are you judging me? are you taking what you shouldn’t? are you my death?

            So he stayed home as much as he could. By government order, by medical advice, by almost everything being shut down so there were few places to go, by him being non-essential and working from home on the Internet—he stayed home, and stayed and stayed and stayed. Stay. Sit. Who’s a good boy? Mister, you’re a good boy.

            Then he went out for a walk. A pleasant walk. Pleasant? How pleasant? Sander’s mask affixed to his face, not any people around. But he could hear—something in the distance. Down the road apiece, near the university. Voices, a large group, yelling something, and the sound of car and truck horns.

            Not likely to be a sports event. Not any of the customary sports, in any case. Those had all been suspended, the university shut down, students and faculty evacuated by emergency decree. The new sport, ad hoc season opening only days before, was protest demonstrations. Black people were being murdered by the police. People of all colors were hitting the streets in protest.

            That had to be what this was, what he was hearing. Should he go? He stopped on the corner and peered down the road. He’d told his wife he was going out for a walk around the block. He couldn’t just traipse off down the road to the protest without letting her know, could he? He didn’t have his cell. It was a walk around the block he was on, not a trek for justice. He’d have to go back home first, let her know.

            Was it worth it, to him? To go be a presence at the protest? Was it worth it to any movement, any coalescence for justice? Why would he do it? For a cause, for anyone else, or would it be only for himself? He stood on the corner and he peered down the road. The distant voices rose and subsided. Car and truck horns honked.


            Old man, take a look at your life. Take a look at yourself. Into your heart and mind. Why would you go down the road? You’d seen the protests on the web. The people there, they were all younger. Young enough to be your children or your grandchildren. What would be your place there? Why would you go? To be special? To be among the other special ones, sharing—what? What would you be sharing?

            Old man, what are you doing? You’re standing on the corner, jerry-rigged furniture sander’s mask over your mouth and nose. You’re wanting to be part of something you’re not sure you can or even should be part of and you know it. Black lives do matter and you know that, too, you know the economic and political and historical roots and tentacles, you’ve had the t-shirt for several years and from time to time, you wear it. What more can you do or have you ever done? Of course you have a part in this fight—everyone does, ready or not, here it is.

            But what’s your part? Tagging along, showing up out of fear of missing out on what the cool kids are doing? Is that a good basis for impromptu participation in a street demonstration? Don’t forget, you’re an old man now.

            It’s not hard. The questions, the answers, they’re not hard. This is your fight, too. It’s part of the fight you’ve fought, in your haphazard, average way—voting, campaign contributions, letters to your legislators and newspapers, a few days of canvassing for candidates who sometimes won but more often lost—but where is your place now? Is it your privilege to go, or to stay?


            He is tired at heart. Disappointed at people, himself not least. The fight never ends. There is no victory that can’t be tarnished, eroded, snatched away. The ideals of his youth—so long ago now—they had seemed—but only seemed—on the brink of being achieved, a new and better world unfolding, doors opening, bridges being crossed into some sort of secular paradise.

            Mirages. It was all mirages.

            He could walk around the block and circle endlessly now around the questions of his or anyone else’s motives, of his proper and defensible place, of what to do when and where and how and why, of the chances that any hopes are to be realized, of what matters, of what doesn’t matter, of what is illusion and what is true—

            He turns to walk back home. He hears the distant sound of the voices and horns, rising and falling behind him. Some other day he may join in the protest, march in a march, even have a cool mask to wear. This is not that day. This is only this day, riven and distressed.