The Student Literary Journal of Vermont State University

Hector Fritch had never paid much attention to the threat of germs. Like, on an obsessive-compulsive level. Oh, he washed his hands after wiping and most of the time after taking a leak. What the hell? It’s clean, it’s mine, and I’m not performing surgery anywhere. But, it was an established societal norm so he usually took the time. He took the time before church because he’d be passing the Peace at some point. For himself, he believed in building an immunity through exposure. Weren’t all those anti-bacterial products just creating stronger bacteria? Overuse of antibiotic drugs was now responsible for resistant strains of staph and even mersa. Maybe he was just a basically healthy specimen because he hadn’t worried about public toilet seats and the like. Nevertheless, when he retired from the auto plant, he began getting flu shots.

He was waiting in line for his annual November inoculation in the Kroger Pharmacy, listening to the season’s first phlegmy hackings of others, when he saw the posters. These detailed, quite graphically, the nasty microbes to be found on shared handles of various types. He’d left his Kindle in the car, so while he awaited the shot, he studied the portraits of hands.

These hands used paper towels and tissues to open doors. Other placards described strategies for flushing public commodes. Here, also, were startling cartoon balloons rising from the grimy pores of some unwitting person’s palms–spectral magnifications which looked like malignant snow flakes or poisonous dandelion puffs. The swamp-scape enlargements of bacteria beneath a fingernail might soon be brought to the lips or nose of a fellow shopper, one caption read. Then onto a bag of salad the wretch would admire and put back. Patient One might as well be holding a pistol. But it was considerate of a grocery corporation to give its customers a heads-up in this way. The Kroger company was proud, one last sign declared, to make hand sanitizer available where customers shared shopping carts.

“Are these pictures for real?” Fritch asked the pharmacist, when it was his turn. The guy stroked Fritch’s bicep with an alcohol wipe.

“It’s a dramatization. But, yeah.”

“Sure makes you think,” Fritch said,

The pharmacist was well trained and much more deliberate than the nurse at Hector’s primary physician. The shot was nearly painless.

“Speaking of bacteria,” the man continued. “Don’t get me started about public toilets. We had a little kid in here a few months ago, sat down in feces. The mom went ballistic. The log on the bathroom wall said it had been checked fifteen minutes before.”

“Yikes.” Fritch put his sweater back on over the Band-Aide.

“Yeah, we’d have to go in there after every use, to be totally safe.”

Hector thanked the pharmacist and went to see if any milk or the good Buffalo chicken nuggets from the deli had been marked down after the weekend. Too late, he realized that strangers may have already pushed the half-sized cart he’d chosen. Next time, he’d wipe the push-bar.

After running his few purchases over the U-Scan device and then paying, he thought he’d better relieve his bladder. Coffee from home was already percolating through. The doorknob of the Kroger bathroom was round and chrome-plated. He couldn’t push it down with his elbow nor pull enough shirt cuff out of his jacket to grasp it. Once inside, there was no urinal, but he flipped the toilet seat up with his foot. There was no infra red eye to flush the thing automatically, so he used his shoe for that, as well. He had to flip on the hot-water before he could lather up, but then had to touch the handle again to shut it off. For this he pulled out a section of paper towel. There seemed no end of waste for he needed a second piece to get back out the door.

Going to the car, Fritch found smooth passage–the sliding glass doors rolled back at his approach. He trusted that no one besides him had opened his car door. He climbed in and drove across the street to the Starbucks. This stop was only going to compound his need for bathroom visits but it was an indelible part of his daily ritual.

As a regular customer, the baristas now brought his dark French-pressed brews to his table. It was the best deal in down. He filled his travel-sipper with enough left in the press for a second helping. Now, however, more complications appeared. The woman ordering ahead of him bent to wipe the nose of a preschooler at her hip. The kid sneezed anyway and then, pleading for a chocolate biscotti, put his little hands up on the edge of the counter. Fritch paid, handing his Gold Starbuck Card directly to the barista. Sometimes he just placed it on the counter if they had turned away to start his drink, but that would clearly be a mistake now.

When his bladder was full again, the toggle flush in the bathroom was easily reached with his foot. He scrubbed up with plenty of the apple-scented foam. Elbowing a fat button unleashed a burst of warm air from the hand drier. This device was the strongest he’d ever encountered, screaming like a jet-drier at a NASCAR track. Fritch felt better after all the paper he’d gone through at Kroger.

He let himself out by pushing down on a lever with his elbow. He finished reading the Washington Post headlines, free on the Kindle, then topped off the travel-sipper. He left the Starbucks by leaning against the cross-bar latch of the entrance door.

His last stop before heading home was always the Lapeer Recreation Center. Fritch tried to walk two or three miles on the indoor track each day. Climbing out of the car, it occurred to him that his new prophylactic thinking might well turn the Rec Center into a labyrinth of precautionary measures. He had to get in and out of the place, and though he seldom used the locker room, there were certainly plenty of other contaminated surfaces.

He took out his keys so that the woman at the front desk could scan his membership card. She was a full-figured gal approaching middle age. A paper-back of Sudoku puzzles lay open on her desk. She held his tag in her bare hand and pulled it through the reader. How many other tags had she handled that very morning? Sweaty ones out of the linty pockets of conscientious folks who covered their mouths for every cough. The inside of that reader–what gremlins hid in that contagious slot? Was it ever cleaned? Maybe the electronics, the…what were they, microwaves? that picked up the bar codes? Wouldn’t those sterilize it? The woman handed the keys back and Fritch took them without touching the tag.

“Do they ever take that apart? I mean, to clean it?” He pointed at the scanner. He noticed the industrial sized bottle of Purell next to her computer screen.

“I don’t know.” She shrugged. “I don’t, personally. Above my pay grade. If it’s not working right somebody comes in after hours.”

There was no one waiting in line behind him so Fritch hesitated. “Say, uh…you don’t suppose I could…” He pointed at the Purell.

The woman looked up from her puzzles again. “What do you need?”

“Well, if I could, just uhh…maybe use some of your hand-sanitizer? All those different cards run through there…kinda makes you wonder.”

The woman studied him with a fairly neutral expression, then stood up. She placed the jug on the counter. “Sure, help yourself. Notice, though, that we just set some out for the public this morning. They’re in the bathrooms, and by the weigh-scales and blood-pressure station.”

Fritch pumped a generous glob into his palm. “Thanks. Thanks you very much. Good to know.”

“It’s that time of year,” the lady sighed, settling back into her swivel chair.

Rubbing his hands together, the perfumed alcohol wafting around him, Fritch walked toward the track entrance. He hung up his coat and wiped the bottoms of his shoes with one of the clean rags provided. He turned on his Kindle and noted the time. Fortunately, an hour would seem to go by quickly for he’d figured out how to read while walking. It was not difficult to stay in the walking lane, and at 11 o’clock in the morning, there were only three other persons using the track.

When he’d trudged the last lap, Fritch felt a glow of satisfaction. He had once again accomplished tasks he’d set for himself to start the day. Now he could improvise the afternoon or just goof off with a clear conscience. He pressed the bar on the front of the drinking fountain with the back of his wrist. The stream rose a safe distance from where other lips may have been. He drank and then retrieved his coat from the rack.

A handicap button opened the doors for him when he tapped it with his shoe. Then, perhaps it was that sense of well-being, or a glimmer of sunlight probing the November gloom which relaxed his new caution. The empty Mountain Dew can was right on top in the trash basket before he left the sidewalk for his car. He plucked it up without hesitation. But then the nickel, shining on the asphalt beneath his car-door, gave him pause. Wasn’t money supposed to be the filthiest thing you could touch, or give to another person? Where had he read that? Cash, especially. But some things you just had to take on faith. It was printed right on the money, somewhere, he thought. He pinched the nickel up and put it in his pocket. Hell, he might have dropped it himself.