The Plaque We Found Inside the Wall

Many people who were not fighting for their lives during the pandemic spent their time remodeling their homes. Just do a search on “home remodeling during the pandemic” and you’ll see what I mean. People had more time, motivation, and money to remodel since they couldn’t travel.

Russ and I were no exception. We decided to remodel our kitchen, a dark brown dungeon that was probably last remodeled in the mid-1980s. We didn’t have much room to work with, so we didn’t enlarge its footprint — we simply brought it into the current century by replacing the cabinets, countertop, sink, and backsplash. We also painted a few window frames.

It looks marvelous, I must say. We went for a modern farmhouse look, and I think we succeeded. However, I’m not going to post any photos because I feel weird about having you all know what my kitchen looks like.

What I will post a photo of is something mysterious we found inside one of the kitchen walls. One of our last jobs involved removing some old Z-brick tile (the stuff that looks like white bricks) on a furnace chimney that runs through the kitchen and retiling it with stone. We hired someone to do the work for us.

When we came back home from a walk, the tile guy said he had something he wanted to show us. He’d found it in the wall surrounding the chimney. He held up a dusty yellowing wooden plaque. It featured paper with burnt edges – a technique popular in the 1970s, with a picture and prayer associated with St. Francis of Assisi.

We weren’t quite sure what to make of this find. We aren’t Catholic or particularly religious. Russ, for one, was disappointed they didn’t find a hoard of gold instead!

After cleaning the plaque and pondering on it for a while, we decided it would not go back inside the wall. But we wouldn’t throw it out, either. That would seem a shame since it’s part of the history of the house. Instead, on the back of it, we wrote in sharpie marker when and where the plaque was found along with our names. We plan to hang it up in the attic so that it will remain with the house – it will be hidden, but not too hidden.

I wonder how many others who remodeled their homes this past year found unexpected treasures in their walls?

Post-Vaccination Reunions: Why I Expect my Grandchild to Run Away From me

The adorable, incomparable Francine in 2020. Image credit: Amanda Jo Dahl-Sales

Videos that show happy reunions between grandparents and grandchildren keep popping up on my social media feeds and in newscasts. With the Center for Disease Control’s blessing, once grandparents wait until their immune systems are fully protected by their vaccinations, they have the green light to hug their children and grandchildren.

Many of these reunions happen outdoors. The grandparents surprise their grandchildren at a bus stop or on a sidewalk. The children pause a moment to realize what’s happening and then run with squeals of joy into their grandparent’s open arms. I always tear up at these.

I am looking forward to such a reunion myself. My target date is April 15, two weeks after my second vaccination. But I have no illusions that my grandchild will even recognize me. I expect she may even scream and run away!

Francine was less than a year old once COVID hit and we all retreated to our individual lairs. Since then, we’ve visited a couple of times outdoors with masks on. We’ve computer Zoomed with Francine and her parents at least monthly, sometimes more. But it’s not the same as spending in-person time with a young grandchild.

Most of the grandchildren in the happy reunion videos are older. They had time to bond with their grandparents before the pandemic. Poor Francine was too young for that, and I expect there’s at least half a generation of other grandbabies who have had their grandparent-bonding interrupted.

We saw videos of Francine’s milestones – learning to walk and talk, but it’s not the same as being there. It sucks and it’s been so hard. And I don’t know about you, but I have a bad case of Zoom fatigue these days. For work and play, I’ve had at least two Zoom meetings every weekday for the past three weeks. Today, I didn’t have any, so that’s why I think I have energy to write this post.

I’m not the only Minnesotan with Zoom fatigue. I just read a story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune that proves it. By tracking geotagged tweets, researchers found that Minnesotan tweets led the nation in phrases like, “I hate virtual meetings” and “I hate Zoom meetings.” Some of the reasons posited are that the Zoom communication style goes against Minnesota culture. More eye contact is required, plus, watching yourself on camera can be “cognitively tiring and anxiety provoking.” Then there are those awkward pauses so difficult to negotiate. Minnesotans prefer a more indirect communication style that simply doesn’t work well in a virtual world.

Nevertheless, I’m glad we at least had Zoom to work with. I don’t know what we would have done without it. We won’t ever get this year back. I am fully prepared for Francine to take time to warm up to me. But I’m sure going to enjoy making up for lost time.

Please, stop showing the needles!

Professor Gottfried Kremsner injects a vaccination against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) from German biotechnology company CureVac to a volunteer at the start of a clinical test series at his tropical institute of the university clinic in Tuebingen, Germany, June 22, 2020. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach/File Photo

I don’t know if it bothers you, but I’ve about had my fill of seeing news reports showing needles poking into people’s arms and giant q-tips being shoved up their noses. Yes, I am happy that a COVID-19 vaccine is being distributed, but do we really need to see people getting shots multiple times during every evening newscast?

Maybe it’s my empathic nature, but it hurts me to see people getting vaccinated. I am not afraid of needles. I would just rather not see them. Even when I get vaccinated, I look the other way. I know it’s going to hurt. I know it will be over quickly. But I’d just rather not see the giant pointy thing approaching my arm.

I saw enough news footage of people getting nasal swabs for COVID testing that I realized I would not enjoy that, either. I am lucky that my community has a large-scale spit testing facility available – one of the first in Minnesota.

I had some symptoms a few months ago, so I took the spit test. Thankfully, it was negative. I plan to get another one even though I don’t have symptoms because we are going to try and have a small family gathering over Christmas. I would much rather spit into a tube than have my brain scraped by a giant q-tip.

Maybe I should just stop watching the evening news. But I would much rather vainly complain about needle footage in hopes some ABC News executive will read my blog and find some other visual to use instead. What would that footage be? I don’t know. Just show the vaccine vials or a smiling person with a temporary bandage on the vaccinated arm. Anything but the NEEDLES!

Paddling into Deep Summer

DSC05846FixedI awaken at 6 a.m., roll over and look at the lake outside the window. The water is smooth as a scrying mirror. The sun peeks over the spruces, encouraging a lake mist to form.

If I were more ambitious, I’d be out paddle boarding right now. Instead, I roll over and shut my eyes, lulled into a doze by the trills of hermit thrushes deep in the forest.

An hour later, I open my eyes to the same scene — the lake still calm, mist still rising.

Although in my book, 7 a.m. is still early to rise, I succumb to the siren call of my standup paddle board. It is early July and the temperature is already 70 degrees outside – one of those days that Minnesotans dream of during February. It would be criminal not to enjoy it.

Russ and the dog are still sleeping, so I quietly get out of bed and don my swimsuit. I tiptoe out into the dew-wet grass toward the boat house – feeling like a teenager headed for an illicit rendezvous. However, I am responsible enough to leave a note on the kitchen table: “Gone paddleboarding!”

DSC05814Opening the boathouse door, I inhale. There’s nothing like that old boathouse smell – decades of damp, mixed with a little mustiness and a hint of worn wood.

I heft my board and paddle, carefully closing the door so I won’t wake those in the cabin. On my way to the dock, I pass a bunch of blueberry plants covered with small blue sapphires – berries ready for picking. I can’t be distracted, though. They’ll have to wait.

As I settle my board into the water, I giggle inwardly. Hardly typical behavior for someone nearing retirement age, but a quick glance at the lake has told me it will only be me and the loons out there this morning. Life cannot get much better.

I head out in a clockwise direction around the lake. This just seems natural. The night before, a small parade of pontoon boats were all going counterclockwise. We’re living in the northern hemisphere. The toilet water spins clockwise. I figure it’s better not to go against the spin.

My board skims the surface easily. In the clear water below, bluegills rush to hide in the reeds. Water plants stand still and straight as trees. As I paddle, the mist seems an elusive dream. I know I’m in it, but I can’t see it when I arrive. The mist is always just out of reach ahead, playing tricks with my senses.

All of the other cabins are silent, still shuttered for the night. I only see a couple of other ladies, each sitting on shore, enjoying their morning coffee. I wave and they wave back.

My morning idyll is shattered by a pain in the middle of my back, between my shoulder blades. A horse fly or deer fly has found me! As I struggle to paddle into position so that I can safely use my paddle to scratch it off my back, I marvel at how these flies know exactly where to bite where they can’t easily be swatted. It’s like all the babies attend Fly Biting School were the teachers point out the safest places on people and animals to chomp.

Board in position, I carefully balance while lifting my paddle to scratch my back. Success! I don’t fall off my board and the pain disappears, along with the fly. Although a nuisance, these flies need clean water to live. Their presence is an indicator of a healthy environment.

The rest of my paddle is uneventful, if you can call relishing every summer sight and sound uneventful. I arrive back at the dock feeling like I’ve paddled into deep summer.

I am so thankful to be able to enjoy this morning, especially since there are so many people gone from this Earth due to the coronavirus, who will never have the chance to experience such things again. It was worth getting out of bed early.

Now, where are those blueberries?


Coronavirus Chronicles: The Social Distancing Police

Social distancing Brianna Taggert

Image courtesy of The McLeod County Chronicle.

Today, I saw a news photo on social media that was taken by a former intern of mine. Brianna Taggert is working for The McLeod County Chronicle in the small Minnesota town of Glencoe. Her photo shows people kneeling in a public square in a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest. Four people in the foreground are kneeling close together.

One social media commenter criticized the protesters’ lack of social distancing. I’ve found myself thinking the same thing when I see personal posts on social media of big families, who I know don’t all live in the same house, getting together for gatherings during the pandemic. It’s only natural to question the wisdom of this.

However, I’ve refrained from commenting. I don’t know the circumstances of the people involved.

  • Maybe they are all living together temporarily and are exposed to each other every day – they are in a pandemic social bubble together.
  • Maybe they’ve all had the virus and are not contagious now.
  • Maybe they’ve all been super careful about their exposure and have made a considered, conscious decision to expand their bubble to include other family members now.
  • Perhaps the viewpoint of the images gives a false impression of how close people really are to each other.
  • Maybe the photo was taken a year ago.

For example, in the protest photo I mentioned, it looks like the people in the foreground who are right next to each other could easily be members of the same family. They are well away from other people. Seems pretty responsible to me. For the people in the background, I can’t really tell how close the groups of people are to each other because of the viewpoint of the photo. But if they are family groups, it looks like they are appropriately distanced.

The New York Times posted an article about social bubbles back in April. It offers excellent commentary on this topic.

One of Brianna’s professors from the University of Minnesota Duluth, John Hatcher, said this about the photo:

It’s Brianna’s “second day on the job and she’s covering what may be the most important story of her career. What I most appreciate is that this story shows us that the impact of George Floyd’s death is not just being felt in larger cites or solely by people of color. This is a story that is prompting action by people across our country and the world and in even in Glencoe, Minnesota, population 5,467. Let’s hope all of this is just the beginning of how we all reflect on what needs to change in our society and our own lives.”

That’s the real takeaway message of this photo.

Of course, this photo is different from images of protests in larger cities where it’s obvious that people are not practicing social distancing. And that’s why public health officials have asked them to self-quarantine for two weeks. I have serious doubts about whether any of them will do so, but I can’t control what other people do. I can only control what I do, and I can make suggestions to my family about what we should do.

I refrain from commenting on social media because I am not the social distancing police. And even if I did comment, it’s not going to make people change their behavior. Such commenting is for public health officials, not me.

Please, think twice before you make knee-jerk judgments on such photos. I’m not trying to control what YOU do, just making a suggestion to think before you type.

Coronavirus Chronicles — The Shower Singer, Part 3 of 3

person holding brown flower curtain

Photo by Elizaveta Dushechkina on

Here’s the final installment of my quarantine romance parable set in Minneapolis. I hope it offers a fun, but relevant distraction during these trying times! (Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.)

Thanks goes to my writers group for helping me get the story to this point (Lacey Louwagie VenOsdel, Linda Olson, and Jim Phillips). And thanks to Teague Alexy for sharing his musical mind with me.

Will Jane call Sam? Does Jane have cryptofungosis? (Don’t you think it’s weird this disease I made up a few years ago starts with the same letter as coronavirus?!) Will Jane and Sam ever meet in person? Read on….

The Shower Singer (Part 3 of 3)

By Marie Zhuikov

On Monday evening, Sam just finished supper when his cell phone rang. “Jane Johnson” showed up on his caller ID. His heart went still at the unfamiliar name. He hoped it was his Jane.

He swallowed hard. “Hi, this is Sam.”

A moment of silence followed, until the voice behind his songs spoke. “Hi Sam, this is Jane.”

He didn’t know what to say, but quickly opted for cool and casual. “Hey Jane, thanks for calling! I guess you got my note.”

“Yes. Thanks for the CD. I liked listening to it. You probably hear this all the time, but you’re a really good musician.”

“Well, I’m back to being a musician again, thanks to you,” Sam said, feeling trapped in the simplicity of his words. There was so much more he wanted to say.

“Oh, I’m sure it’s not just me. You would have gotten inspired some other way, even if you hadn’t overheard me in the shower.”

Sam thought about this. She might be right. Something or somebody else might have inspired him down the line. “But the thing is, I did hear you and you did inspire me.” He told Jane how he felt weird about it and had tried to meet her in their building.

“Don’t feel weird,” Jane said. “I think it’s cool that something good came of it, especially now . . . when things are so uncertain . . . .”

“About that –” Sam said, not wanting to call the disease by name, especially since she hadn’t. “When do you find out?”

Her answer came quickly, “Monday.”

“Wow, tomorrow. If you don’t have it, do you get to leave right away?”

“Probably not until Tuesday. It depends on when my doctor is at the hospital to sign what needs to be signed. The CDC is pretty strict about that stuff for quarantine release.”

Sam didn’t want to ask the next question and possibly upset her, but he needed to know. “And how long would you be in if you do have it?”

Jane sighed. “Another couple of weeks.”

“That sucks. Let’s hope for the best, then.”

“You got that right, I’m about ready to tear my hair out as it is.”

“Hey, want to hear one of your songs?” Sam asked.

“Of course I do!”

“Okay, I have to go grab my guitar. And I need to sing quietly because the neighbors — not you, of course — get upset if I sing too loudly.”

Jane laughed.

“Hey, can you video chat with your phone?”

“No, sorry. My phone’s pretty basic.”

Sam swallowed his disappointment. “Okay. Hold on.” He got his guitar and sat on the couch. He switched on his phone’s speaker.

As he began singing “Stranded,” Sam noticed a quiver in his voice. Although he had performed the song in front of audiences half a dozen times already, this was different. This was Jane.

He stopped and cleared his throat. “Sorry,” he said, taking a second to regain his composure. He continued, his voice stronger than before.

Afterward, Jane was quiet for so long, Sam thought they’d been disconnected.

“Jane?” he ventured. “You still there?”

“It’s beautiful,” she said. “I can’t believe you got that out of something you overheard from me.”

Her voice was soft, and he couldn’t quite tell what emotions were behind it.

“I think I’d better go,” she said. “Someone’s coming in to take my vitals. Six times a day, every day. Doesn’t even matter if I’m sleeping. But they’re earlier than usual tonight.”

Was that a hint of disappointment Sam heard in her voice? “Oh, okay,” he said, although he didn’t want their conversation to end.

“You got my phone number to call back?” she asked.

Sam brightened. “Yeah, it’s on my caller ID.”

“Okay. Give me a call tomorrow night. I should know by then.”

Sam hesitated. “Okay,” he said. “I’ll call you. Hang in there, you hear? I’ll be here whatever happens.”

Jane’s voice softened again. “Thanks. I appreciate that. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

“Okay. You take care and rest easy now.”

“I will. Bye.”

Sam wanted a few more moments on the line with her, so he waited before saying, “Bye Jane. And good night.”


Tossing and turning that night, Sam had an idea. Early the next morning before his shift at the co-op, he rode back to the hospital and bought a teddy bear for Jane from the gift shop. It was tan and plump. Smiling, it held a red heart that read, “Get Well Soon.”

Poor Jane. Today was D-Day. He hoped to God she didn’t have crypto, both so she could avoid further isolation — and because he wanted to see her — to meet her in person as soon as possible.

The question of her appearance still nagged at him. As he walked down the hallway to her unit clutching the bear, he thought about asking Gladys what Jane looked like. But any way he worked out the request in his head sounded weird and shallow. He reminded himself that it was the place inside her that her songs came that mattered.

When he arrived at the nursing station, Gladys wasn’t there. Sam left the bear with the other nurse on duty and asked her to give it to Jane.

Work was unbearable. He mixed up brands of organic kidney beans on the shelves, put the kale in the green onion bin, and got reprimanded by his boss for forgetting to close the storeroom refrigerator door completely.

He should just go home. How was he going to survive the next few hours? Shit, how was she going to? He hoped the teddy bear would help. It seemed so lame, but it was the best he could do for now.

He was so scattered and stressed, he couldn’t even channel his feelings into a song.

After narrowly surviving his bike ride through the traffic, Sam arrived home. He couldn’t eat. Instead, he paced his living room floor until he thought it was a good time to call Jane: 7 p.m.

His heart raced as he punched her contact listing on his cell.

She answered after the second ring with a “Hey Sam.”

He tried to divine her emotions from her greeting. Dare he think she sounded relaxed?

“So, what’s the news?” he asked.

I don’t have it!”

Sam couldn’t speak for a few moments. “Oh, I am so happy to hear that!”

“You and me both,” she said.

“So when can I spring you from the joint?”

Now it was Jane’s turn to pause. “You want to bring me home?”

“Hell yes!” he said. “If you don’t mind.”

“I’d like that.” Jane’s voice had gone all soft. The sound melted something in Sam’s belly. “Anyway, I don’t have my car here because I took the bus to work. My car’s parked in front of our building.”

In his enthusiasm to bring Jane home, Sam conveniently overlooked that all he had to offer her for transportation was his bike. He felt like an idiot, but an alternative came to him quickly. “Hey, I don’t have a car, either, but I’ll pick you up in a cab.”

“I’ll hold you to that.” After a moment, Jane added, “Guess what I am hugging right now?”

“The bear?”

“You got it. He’s my favorite visitor so far,” she said.

“I’m glad to hear that. I figured you would need something to hug today, either way.”

“I still can’t quite believe I don’t have crypto,” Jane said. “After I found out, I said a prayer for all those poor people who do. I felt guilty to be so relieved when they are suffering.”

“It’s all right, Jane. The only one you can do anything about now is yourself.”

A moment of silence passed over the line. “You’re right,” Jane said. “Hey, I’ll see you tomorrow, music man. Will nine work?”

“Perfect,” Sam said.


As Sam rode in the cab the next morning, he thought about the fitful night he’d just spent wondering about Jane. He wasn’t sure how he’d react when he saw her for the first time.

From their phone conversations, he’d built a clearer picture of her in his head – more than just the long hair and wet skin he’d imagined before. Now he imagined her eyes, colored with compassion, and brown hair. Her voice didn’t sound encumbered, and he wanted to believe it came from a graceful neck and through smooth lips.

He wanted to be attracted to her, but what if, when he saw her in just a few moments, he wasn’t?

He knew himself well enough to understand that he would be disappointed if he wasn’t. In that case, maybe he and Jane could just be friends. Would that be enough? Would he still gain inspiration from her once he knew what she looked like?

For a few moments, he thought about turning around and not meeting her. Maybe it was better not to know what she looked like. That way, he could maintain his vision of her — not have reality intrude. He could just tell the cabbie to do a U-turn and . . . .

No. Jane would be disappointed if he weren’t there to pick her up. He needed to go through with it. He needed to meet this woman, no matter what. If he wasn’t attracted to her, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. And why should the world revolve around him, anyway?

Sam watched the trees laden with green leaves slip past outside the cab windows, his eyes shielded from the sunbeams by his corn seed cap. Selene flitted through his mind. Had he ever felt this strongly about her? Would he be willing to rearrange his gig schedule for Jane’s birthday or for Valentine’s Day?

Honestly, he felt willing to do just about anything for this woman. A spike of nerves made his stomach clench.

Soon, the cab pulled up to the hospital doors. Sam instructed the cabbie to wait and he got out. As he walked through the doors and down the hallways with their locked rooms and harsh smell of disinfectant, his stomach rolled into an even tighter ball.

His mother’s face, vague and brooding, seemed reflected in the curtained windows. He took off his cap and stuck it in his back pocket, drew his hand through his hair.

Finally, he saw Gladys standing behind the nursing station desk.

She smiled at Sam. “C’mon honey. Let’s go get Jane outta here.”

They walked a few doors down and Gladys opened Jane’s door.


I hope you enjoyed the story! Let me know what you think happens once Sam sees Jane. Should appearance be as important as it is in our society?

If you liked this, you might like my novels. Learn more about them here.

Coronavirus Chronicles — The Shower Singer, Part 2 of 3

person holding brown flower curtain

Photo by Elizaveta Dushechkina on

Here’s the second installment of “The Shower Singer,” a quarantine romance parable set in Minneapolis. The story does not provide all the answers. It makes readers think. It’s one of a series I’m working on for an anthology on the theme of deceiving appearances.

I hope it offers a fun, but relevant distraction during these trying times! (Read Part 1 here.)

The Shower Singer (Part 2 of 3)

By Marie Zhuikov

Then came the morning when the shower lady’s shower didn’t turn on. Then another, and another.

Sam listened intently for any life next door, even putting his ear against the wall. Nothing.

He began to wonder. Maybe she was in there hurt, maybe a victim of foul play, maybe in jail? No, not in jail. That didn’t fit Sam’s image of her. To him, she was young, modern, with long hair, and skin wet from the shower . . . .

Several newspapers were strewn across her sunburst doormat. Sam wasn’t sure what to do. Ask a neighbor? Nah, that would seem stalker-ish. Besides, he didn’t know any of the other neighbors.

“What do you think I should do?” he asked Randy the next time he was practicing in the garage.

It was Sam’s third day without the shower lady. He didn’t tell Randy that the woman was his muse, just that he was worried about her.

Randy leveled his brown-eyed gaze on Sam. “Why don’t you just ask the landlord or the building manager?”

“You know they hate me,” Sam said. “I’ve already got a bad rep with them from Stella. If I ask about this lady, they’ll probably think I just want to case the joint or something.”

“Yeah, but how are you going to find out about her otherwise?” Randy asked.

Sam searched the nooks and crannies of his muse-starved mind. Nothing came to him. He had to know what happened to her. What if she had moved? He had to find her.

“I don’t know. Guess I’ll just have to put on my big boy coveralls and get to it.”

Randy gave Sam’s shoulder a fist bump. “That’s my Corn Boy.”

The next day, after another morning with silence next door, Sam knocked on the building manager’s door on the first floor.

The last time he spoke to Bruce, the manager had threatened Sam with eviction. Sam waited, holding his breath. A short heavyset man with graying hair opened the door.

“Oh you, whadda you want?” Bruce asked.

Sam paused, exhaling to keep himself calm. “It’s my neighbor.”

“Which one, four-thirteen or four-seventeen?” the short man asked.


“What about her? She complaining about your noise, too?”

Sam shook off his annoyance. “No. I’m worried about her. Newspapers are piling up outside her door. I haven’t heard anything over there in days. Could you take a look?”

Before answering, Bruce eyed Sam up and down as if searching his baggy T-shirt and jeans for drug paraphernalia. A sly smile slowly lit his chubby face. “Neighbor? What neighbor? That apartment has been vacant for weeks.”

Sam’s thoughts wheeled for a few moments, finally settling in the direction of ghosts. Had he just been hearing things? Had it all been an illusion?

Bruce’s smile widened at the expression on Sam’s face.

Sam felt his blood pressure spike. “Cut the bull. She might be in there hurt or something. You need to go investigate.”

Bruce’s smile disappeared. “Just having a little fun. Let’s go have a look-see.” He closed the door most of the way and went back inside his apartment, returning with a set of keys. “C’mon,” he said, and the two climbed the stairs to the fourth floor.

The newspapers were still lying outside the door of apartment four-thirteen.

Bruce knocked. When there was no answer he took the keys from his pocket and opened the door. “You stay out here.”

Sam did what Bruce said, but couldn’t help trying to see inside. Her apartment was laid out differently than his. She had an entry hallway. His door just opened up into his living room. He saw an entry table with a lamp on it. A ceramic bowl — maybe for keys, sat next to the lamp.

Bruce’s muffled voice came from inside, “I don’t see nothin’. Don’t see her. Wherever she is, I gotta leave a note letting her know I was here.”

“So now what?” Sam asked after Bruce came out and locked the door.

“I’ll call her work. Jane’s a nurse at the county hospital -– in the baby unit. Lives here by herself.”

Sam’s heart gave a jump. Jane. Now he had a name to go with the singing. Bruce was on his way back down the hall before Sam collected himself enough to say, “Let me know what you find out.”

Bruce just kept walking. His “Yeah, whatever,” floated down the hallway.


The next evening was Friday night. Sam had checked his cell phone all day, hoping for a message from Bruce. No such luck. The wait was wearing on him.

As he ate his grilled cheese supper, Sam considered calling Bruce. He disliked the man, but how else was he going to find out what happened to Jane?

Bruce answered on the third ring, sounding annoyed as usual.

“I was wondering what you found out about my neighbor.”

Sam didn’t want to call her “Jane” to Bruce, sure that the way he said her name would give away his feelings for her. Besides, her name seemed too precious to say to this jerk.

“Yep,” said Bruce.

Yep? That was all he was going to give him? “Well?” Sam asked.

After a pause, the manager said, “She’s under quarantine.”

It took a moment for Sam to process the strange word. He knew what it meant, just not the “why” of it. “So what’s the deal?” he asked.

“She was exposed to that new disease goin’ around,” Bruce said. “You know, that crypto-whatever-it-is. So they got her locked in a room at the hospital until they know for sure if she’s got it or not.”

Sam had heard of crypto. It stood for cryptofungosis, a nasty disease that was spreading overseas. It was caused by inhaling a fungus from the soil, but it could be passed from person-to-person, too. Pregnant women infected with it gave birth to babies with deformed arms and legs.

“How’d she get exposed?” Sam wanted to know.

“Dude, they wouldn’t tell me that kinda thing,” Bruce said. “All I needed to know was where she was at, and now I know, so I didn’t go axin’ all kinds of questions.”

“Okay, okay.” Sam tried to mollify the manager. “Thanks for telling me. Let me know if there’s anything I can do.”

“What you can do,” the manager said, “is to keep down the racket. Even if one of your neighbors ain’t home no more.”

Sam didn’t think that deserved a reply. He pressed “call end” and looked at the wall behind his kitchen sink — a wall that Jane should be behind.

He had to get outside and think about what he should do. Sam left his half-eaten grilled cheese on his plate, slinging his guitar case over his back and his bike over his shoulder. He headed for Powderhorn Park, a couple miles down Cedar Avenue.

As Sam biked through traffic, the face of his mother floated in the humid summer air and green hedges before him. She was wearing her camouflage gear, looking at him with her soulful brown eyes. She had been a medic in the Gulf War. The helicopter she was in crashed, her body burned in the desert. They didn’t have much to bury when she came home. It was like she disappeared when she walked out their farmhouse door for her tour of duty.

Their dad had tried to hold it together for Sam and his brother, but things were never the same after their mother’s remains came home in a gray metal transfer case.

Dad threw himself into working the farm and never did find anyone else, at least not yet. Sam doubted he ever would, especially since he hardly ever left the farm.

Sam shook his head to keep the hollowness in his soul from growing, and he kept on biking. Once at the park, he leaned his bike against his favorite bench that overlooked the big pond in the middle. The water was full of goldfish, carp, and all kinds of plants or animals that people didn’t want in their aquariums anymore. But Sam liked seeing the bright flashes of orange as the fish came to the shore, looking for handouts.

He sat on the bench and took out his guitar, strumming it absently. A breeze cooled him and the sky was beginning to take on the purplish hues of twilight.

What should he do? Jane, Jane, his Jane might have some god-awful disease. How did quarantine visits work, anyway? Tomorrow was Saturday. He didn’t have a gig or work. Should he try to visit her – see if she needed anything?

That would be stupid. A girl like that probably had lots of people looking out for her. He’d just be in the way. What was he to her? Just the stranger next door.

But the hospital wasn’t that far away. He could easily bike there or walk. Jane was probably pretty bored.

What if she died and he never got to see the woman who haunted him with her music? He could never forgive himself, never repay her if he didn’t see her. It would be like his mom — like she left one day and never came back.

Jane should know the gift she’d been giving him, and how he’d been using it.

He laughed at himself. Here he was getting all emotional about a woman he’d never even seen. He thought again about how she might look. With such a beautiful voice, she had to be beautiful, didn’t she?

What if she wasn’t?

What the fuck did that matter? It was the place where Jane’s music came from that he was falling for. That’s what was important — the place inside her that he owed a debt to. Not her looks.

A couple wandered past and did their best to ignore Sam, until he started playing “Stranded.” Then they stopped a few steps away and watched him play, the setting sun reflecting purple and red behind them, creating fuzzy haloes around their hair.

They clapped when he finished, and Sam gave them a quick salute.


The next day, Sam chained his bike to a lamppost outside Hennepin County Medical Center and entered, on a search for the birth center. He knew Jane wasn’t there, but hoped someone could tell him where to find her.

The desk nurse at the center directed him to another building across the street. As he walked down the hall of the building, the smells of disinfectant and the silence of the closed, and presumably locked, patient doors unnerved Sam.

A dark-skinned woman sat behind the unit desk. She was talking on the phone, but interrupted her call when she noticed Sam standing in front of her.

“What can I do for you, honey?” Her voice had a southern twang that enchanted Sam. Her nametag said “Gladys S.”

“I’m looking for Jane — I don’t know her last name, but she’s an employee here who’s in quarantine.”

Gladys spoke into the phone and ended her call. “You immediate family?” She looked Sam over.

He started to fidget, shifting from one foot to the other. “Not exactly.” He quickly added, “But I’m her neighbor. I figured she might need something. I just want to help.”

Gladys’ gaze turned stony. “I can only let in immediate family and medical personnel.” She paused for a moment, then said more softly, “It’s too bad you ain’t immediate family, cuz nobody’s been to see that poor girl other than some of her friends who’s nurses. I don’t know where her family is, but they shore ain’t here.”

“Well, can you at least tell me how she’s doing?”

“No can do,” said the nurse. “Only . . .”

“. . .for immediate family and medical personnel.” Sam finished for her.

Gladys stood and peered across the desk at Sam more closely. “Say, ain’t chu that musician? I thought I saw you at the 331 Club a coupla weeks ago.”

“Yeah, that was me.” Sam’s heart gave a little hop. “Listen, I just want to see her. Just for a bit.”

“You go in there and you gotta suit up like a Martian,” Gladys explained. “Only her family can do that. Poor girl’s in there for another three days till they know for sure whether she’s got the crypto or not. Sorry, but I can’t let you in.”

“Well can I at least call her or something?”

Gladys regarded Sam again. “She know you?”

“ . . . No,” Sam said.

“You two never met? What you doin’ here then?”

Sam shrugged and tried to look innocent.

Gladys took his measure yet again. “You best approach her more careful-like, then.”

Sam waited for the nurse to explain.

Gladys looked up at the ceiling for a moment, as if the answer were there. “Like . . . send her a letter or somethin’. Let her decide if she wanna talk to you. She under a lot of stress, you know.”

“Thanks Gladys,” Sam said. “That sounds like a good idea.”

“Okay, you go on now,” Gladys said. “I ‘spect I’ll see you back here soon.”

“I spect you will,” Sam said, caught up in Gladys’ manner of speaking.


Jane turned off the TV gameshow and looked out the window of her hospital room. Rain sputtered, painting the windows with gray rivulets.

It was Sunday and she had another two days left in this hell hole. That was, if she didn’t have crypto. If she did have it, she’d be in for another two weeks, pumped full of strong anti-fungal drugs.

Jane sighed, thinking back to the chain of events that brought her here. It had been Christine, a pregnant woman who had just returned from a trip to the Middle East. When she felt sick, she had visited her doctor at the HCMC Birth Center. Jane was the one who had taken her blood samples and stood close enough to breathe in the air that Christine breathed out.

Too late for Jane, the doctors had discovered that the cause for Christine’s malaise was cryptofungosis. Now she was quarantined just down the hall, too, undergoing treatment and no doubt worried about her unborn baby. Even future babies Christine might have could be born with the deformities that were hallmarks of the disease.

Jane shuddered. Her foot stuck out from under her sheets. Although she was afraid of what she might see, she couldn’t help but glance at her toenails, looking for any black streaks — one of the first signs. Nope, nothing yet.

Even though the disease was treatable, the medications were so strong that doctors wouldn’t prescribe them unless they knew for sure she had it. So Jane had to wait.

She looked back up, catching a glimpse of herself in the mirror on the other side of the room from her bed. Framing her straight brows and dark blue eyes, her black hair was starting to get stringy. She hadn’t showered in a few days.

Normally, she had a nurse’s instincts to keep clean, but it’s not like she had to shower to look good for visitors. Her parents lived on the West Coast, too poor to afford a trip to Minnesota on her mom’s salary as a waitress. Her dad was a disabled vet from the Afghan War, and his disability check didn’t cover much. She had no brothers or sisters.

Jane had come to Minnesota in search of a good nursing education, leaving the California poverty behind. She’d gotten her degree, her first job, and now this . . . .

Thank God she had her cell phone — her one link to the outside world and to her parents. She also called her nursing school friends, who had all dispersed to other cities and hospitals. The few other friends she made here were great when she needed help moving, but most were too busy to visit her in the hospital. Or maybe too scared.

A knock sounded on the hallway window to her room. The staff used the tray underneath the window to transfer food and other items to her. Jane got out of bed and walked over to it. Gladys stood, holding an envelope in her hand.

“Sweety, a man named Sam who says he’s a neighbor of yours brought this for you.” She held up the manila envelope, which Jane could see was wrinkled with several rain spatters.

“You mean from my apartment building?”

Gladys nodded.

“But I don’t know any Sam,” Jane said.

“Why not just read this and see what it says?” Gladys placed the envelope in the tray and pulled the lever that pushed the tray into Jane’s room.

Jane retrieved it. “All right then, thanks.” She turned and sat back down on her bed, ripping open the envelope. There was something hard in it besides the paper, but she ignored it in favor of the letter.

Dear Jane,

Hi. I’m Sam from #415. I noticed you haven’t been home for a while, so I got Bruce to check on you. Sorry to hear you might be sick. I saw on the news where that lady exposed a couple of other people besides you, and they’re also under quarantine. That’s got to suck.

You must be pretty bored. I’m including one of my CDs for you to help pass the time. I’m a musician and these are my songs.

Not to freak you out or anything, but I noticed that you like to sing in the shower. I can hear it from my kitchen. You’re a good singer, you know. I ended up writing a couple of new songs based on your tunes. Maybe someday you’ll get out of there and I can play them for you.

I tried to visit you, but they wouldn’t let me since I’m not family. So this letter will have to do for now. But if you want, you can call me. I’m usually home in afternoons during the week (612-555-1234). Hey, maybe I could play my new songs for you over the phone!

Anyway, I just wanted to thank you for the inspiration, and to let you know that somebody’s rooting for you out here. Give me a call and let me know how you’re doing.

Your Friend,


Jane laid the letter on her bed and took the CD out of the envelope. She studied the photo of the man holding a guitar and standing in front of a gritty urban scene. Sam was cute — with scruffy blond hair, deep-set eyes and a hint of mustache over his lip. His body looked wiry and tall; his fingers slim and nimble on the guitar strings.

A pleasant shiver went through her. This was her neighbor? Damn, why couldn’t they have met before she got quarantined?

She didn’t know how she felt about him overhearing her singing in the shower. That was a little creepy. She thought she was singing in private. That Sam had heard her made her feel exposed. She crossed her arms and sat back against her pillows.

Sam had heard the little tunes she made up, and had created songs from them. Should she be mad at him for “stealing” her shower songs? Jane thought for a few moments. No. She wasn’t mad. She rather liked that something good came from the thin walls in her bathroom.

She certainly hadn’t been singing in the shower in the hospital since she got quarantined — she was too worried.

Jane thought back to when she used to luxuriate in her morning showers. Her singing came in fits and starts — only when she was happy and relaxed.

She had wondered why music sometimes came to her in the shower and sometimes not until the day she had been curious enough to Google it. She discovered that shower singing had been scientifically studied, which made her chuckle.

The researchers found that people liked to sing in the bathroom because the hard surfaces created good acoustics.

“The multiple reflections from walls enrich the sound of one’s voice,” the researchers said. “Small dimensions and hard surfaces of a typical bathroom produce various kinds of standing waves, reverberation and echoes, giving the voice fullness and depth.”

But that didn’t explain the emotions behind it. Another link on “How Stuff Works,” provided her with that. It said that people sang in the shower because they’re alone, and they feel safe and comfortable in the warm water. “Stress literally washes off you. When you relax, your brain releases dopamine, which can give your creative juices a jumpstart.”

The website also said that the act of singing made people feel even better because the breathing involved in it put more oxygen in their blood. This provided for better circulation, which improved their body and their mood. The end result was something like meditation.

Jane had hardly taken any showers here. Not only because she didn’t have many visitors to look good for, but because she was fearful of what she might see on her body once it was naked — black streaks on her skin and nails.

It was like if she didn’t look at her body, she could ignore her current situation. Ignore the smooth white skins waiting to betray her.

How could she even think of calling Sam and starting a friendship when she didn’t know if she was sick or not?

But damn, she was lonely. She didn’t know if she could make it the next two days while she waited for the news. She’d already called her family so often, and her nursing friends. It might be nice to talk to someone new.

Jane looked out her window at the rain still coming down. Sam must have braved the storm to bring her his letter. She smiled and kept mulling.

That’s all for now. I’ll post Part 3 on Thursday.

Coronavirus Chronicles — The Shower Singer, Part 1 of 3

person holding brown flower curtain

Photo by Elizaveta Dushechkina on

As promised, here’s my first installment of “The Shower Singer,” a quarantine romance parable set in Minneapolis. The story does not provide all the answers. It makes readers think. It’s one of a series that I’m working on for an anthology on the theme of deceiving appearances.

I hope it offers a fun, but relevant distraction during these trying times for you, my virtual neighbors, as we fight an invisible enemy together.

The Shower Singer

by Marie Zhuikov

. . . When those who enjoy a hot bath inhale the air of the bath, so that the heat of the air enters their spirits and makes them hot, they are found to experience joy. It often happens that they start singing, as singing has its origin in gladness.
— Ibn Khaldun (an early founder of modern sociology), from “Muqaddimah,” 1377 AD

Sam sat at the chipped yellow Formica table in his kitchen and slurped the milk from his cereal bowl. The cereal box next to him proclaimed that Honey Sunshine was a healthier, organic alternative to Captain Crunch. He wasn’t so sure.

As he took a spoonful and his teeth ground through the rough squares, he mulled his situation. He hadn’t written a song in a couple of months. No melodies drifted into his head. Not even any tuneless lyrics. He just wasn’t inspired.

Being songless was boring. Eating this cereal was boring. Why did he eat it, anyway? It was like chewing thirty-grit sandpaper with a bunch of sugar on top. Lord knows his mouth could use a clean start. But this wasn’t the way he wanted to get it.

Maybe it had something to do with Selene. They had broken up about six months ago after she got frustrated by his schedule. At first, after their break-up, he was at least able to write morose songs. Now nothing — as if the longer he was away from her, the more the creativity drained from him.

When they met, he was the noon entertainment at an arts show at a conference center in downtown Minneapolis. Between sets, he wandered, looking at the booths. He stopped at hers, “Selene’s Silver Spoon Jewelry.” As he admired the rings and bracelets she had made from recycled silver spoons, he noticed how her smile lit up her face, then seemed to spread across the room. One thing led to another and soon they were spending all their free time together.

After things got bad, he had tried to explain to her that his gigs were planned months in advance — months before he met her. He couldn’t just cancel because she wanted to spend Valentine’s Day together or because it happened to be her birthday. This was his career, the money he enjoyed making most — way better than his job stocking shelves at the Seward Co-op.

But she wouldn’t buy it. Selene of the killer smile and long legs dumped him after she met someone else at a craft show where she had a booth.

He drew his fingers through his straw blond hair that stuck out in every direction. He chewed more cereal, studying the Honey Sunshine box in front of him.

Damn Selene. He was beginning to wonder if his condition was permanent. He was still getting gigs, and the money was okay. But the Twin Cities audiences wouldn’t follow him for long if he didn’t come up with some new stuff. And his agent, Gary, was bugging him about another album to follow up his first.

Damn Selene of the silver spoons.

Selene of the Silver Spoons. He knew that would make a good song title, but meh. He couldn’t work up enthusiasm to do anything about it.

Damn Selene of the soft sighs, long blonde hair, beautiful smile.

Sam closed his eyes, trying to block the memories that were coming to him, when he heard the shower turn on in the apartment next door.

This was a pretty good apartment building on the West Bank, but the walls were thin. The neighbor’s shower butted up against his kitchen; he suspected their plumbing was connected.

He also assumed his neighbor was a woman from the bright flowery couch and chairs he saw moved into her apartment last week. And they were modern flowers — geometric — not old lady flowers. She had a lot of people helping — he couldn’t tell which one she was — and he hadn’t run into her in the hall or anything to say “Hey.”

Thank God she replaced Old Stella, who complained to the manager every time he as much as plucked a guitar string.

He chewed some more. Drank a few swallows of juice. Almost time to go to the co-op and arrange cans by size and color. At least it was a co-op and not some lame big-chain grocery store. He liked living and working on the fringes. Working for Wal-Mart or some other big company wasn’t his style. Plus he got a discount on food from the co-op.

Through the grinding of his molars, Sam heard something. Was that his radio? Had he hit the snooze button by accident?

He stopped chewing. The shower water was the only sound.

Sam started chewing again and the noise — no, the music — returned. He stopped chewing. Was that singing?

Yes, it was singing. Good singing. Just the snippet of a melody — haunting and slow — a woman’s voice in a minor key. His arm was resting beside his bowl. He watched as the hairs on it started to rise.

Then the singing stopped. Sam looked at his kitchen sink, willing the music to start again through the wall. After a few moments, it did.

Just eight notes, which the woman repeated. Sam jumped up, spilling cereal and milk across the table. Heedless, he ran for his bedroom. A thin reporter’s notebook lay on nightstand beside his bed. He grabbed it and a pencil, and came back to the table, sitting on the dry side. He scribbled furiously, writing down the notes his neighbor sang.

He felt on fire — as if this were the first song he’d ever heard. The notes were wondrous, round, and melancholy.

His mysterious neighbor kept repeating the notes for a couple minutes — enough time to allow him to record the melody on paper. He could see himself playing the tune on his guitar — see it spinning out into a longer song, easy. Add a little harmonica riff in the middle. Shit, he hadn’t felt this good in weeks!

The singing stopped and Sam looked at the kitchen wall again, noticing the time on the clock above the sink. Crap. Time to head to work. He stuck his notepad in the back pocket of his worn jeans and quickly sopped up the mess on the table with a rag he threw into the sink.

He put on his favorite baseball cap, the red one with a big yellow corncob on the front, courtesy of some company his dad got his corn seed from. He grabbed his bike, which was leaning next to the door.

Carrying his bike down the four flights of stairs was faster than taking the elevator, so he headed down and out into the bustling morning streets of Minneapolis.


During his five-hour shift at the co-op, Sam was distracted. More pieces of the song kept coming to him as he hauled boxes of food from the storeroom out to their place on the shelves. He didn’t have a title for the piece yet, but knew that it would come once he had more time with it.

Sam vaguely noticed his co-workers were trying talk to him, but they quickly gave up when met by his preoccupied stare. Later, a couple of the new girls whispered something about him doing drugs. The others set them right. They said Sam was clean, he didn’t do that crap. He was just working on a song.

Sam smiled.

He usually worked mornings, saving the afternoons and evenings for songwriting and gigs. He left the co-op at one, after buying some organic convenience food. He shoved it in his backpack and biked straight home.

More pieces of the song came to him while he was riding. He climbed up the stairs to his apartment as fast as he could with his bike on his shoulder, barely noticing the people he met on his way. He dropped the bike inside the door and almost ran to the kitchen table, pulling out his notebook.

He finished the melody in stops and starts. Now for the words. He paged back in his notebook where he kept phrases that came to him upon waking, or that he overheard people say on the street or at work. He looked for words that fit the rhythm to the song – the shower lady’s song, as he now thought of it.

He stopped and listened, straining his ears to hear anything next door. It was quiet. Of course, she was probably still working. It was only early afternoon. Still, he kept an ear tuned for her as he wrote, curious about her schedule.

Since nothing was coming together with the words, Sam decided to take a break — to balance his checkbook and the money that bounced out as fast as it bounced in. Always living on the edge.

Later, as he was finishing his supper of garlic bread and organic canned spaghetti, the words came to him. It was like they sifted through his head from all the words he’d heard or thought about earlier in the day, and fell out on his plate.

“Oh baby, why’d you sail away and leave me, stranded on this shore. Baby, oh baby why don’t you say you love me anymore. . .” And the rest followed.


Months ago, after Old Stella had started complaining, Sam moved his practices from his apartment to the dust of his friend Randy’s garage. Randy and his wife lived only a few blocks away, so it was easy for Sam to ride his bike to their place, guitar slung on his back, whenever he had the urge.

Randy had given him the key code to the security panel on the garage door. Sam would sit on a folding chair among the smells of street gravel and grass clippings, experimenting with the shower lady’s song; moving out of the way when Randy or Melissa needed to park their car.

Sam soon started playing “Stranded,” as he ended up naming the song, at his performances. Audiences liked it. So did his agent, who was excited that Sam was finally producing something new.

“More,” Gary said. “Gimme more like that, Corn Boy, and you’ll have enough for another album in no time!”

“Corn Boy” was Sam’s nickname, a nod to his previous life with his dad and younger brother on the corn tundra of southern Minnesota. Plus Sam’s hair was the color of corn silk, and there was that cap he liked to wear. But his respectable stage name was Samuel Collins.

Sam did give Gary more. During the next couple of weeks, his neighbor kept singing in her shower. Every few days she offered a new snippet of a tune. Almost every time, the melody struck Sam and inspired him. Those days passed in a pleasant creative blur.

Back at the apartment, Sam had tried to catch a glimpse of his new neighbor — listening for her door to open — still trying to figure out her schedule. Other than her shower during his breakfast, he didn’t hear her over there. He didn’t hear her come home at night, which he suspected either meant she worked late, or that she had someplace else to go after work.

Maybe a boyfriend’s house? He didn’t want to think about that. She was his, after all — his own secret muse, just on the other side of the wall. . . .

That’s all for now. I’ll post Part 2 on Tuesday.

Coronavirus Chronicles – The Invisible Enemy

Coronavirus CDC

The coronavirus. Image courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control.

Well, I won’t be meandering anywhere but between my house and grocery store anytime soon. Although nobody in Duluth, Minn., has tested positive for coronavirus yet, most people are limiting their travel and hunkering down at home. At work, we were told to start telecommuting last Monday, so I’ve been working at home — much to Buddy’s delight!

When Russ and I went grocery shopping earlier this week, it felt a bit like venturing into a war zone – one with an invisible enemy. Is it safe to touch this box of cereal, or are virus germs on it? Is it okay to talk to this person we know in the grocery aisle or should we stand farther away? When we bring the groceries into our home, is the virus hitchhiking along?  Wait, did I just touch my face? Aaagh! Should we wash our hands before we put the groceries away, or after? We decided to be extra careful and wash our hands twice.

Both Russ and I are in high-risk categories. Russ because he is older than me and male. Me because I am recovering from surgeries and have some lung issues due to allergies. So that’s a source of concern. Another source of concern are the things I learned when I took an epidemiology class for my master’s degree in public health journalism. I learned enough to know that this virus could be very bad. My instructor told us that the world was overdue for a pandemic. Usually, they occur every hundred years. The last one was in 1918 with the Spanish flu. Predictions were for the disease to originate in China because of the close living conditions there between people and farm animals.

Well, we made it 102 years. Not bad! But here we are, dealing with something with which few people have experience (except for these two ladies who are in their 100s.)

One of my writer friends, Lucie Amundsen, wrote an opinion piece recently for our local newspaper (“Our caring can be this crisis’s silver lining”) where she exhorted people to commit compassionate acts in the community as a way of coping with coronavirus. “Nothing combats fear and anxiety like action,” she said. “Do something. Do that thing you’re good at and share it up and down your street.”

While lying in bed this morning, I thought about what I’m good at that could be shareable. I don’t think it’s wise to share things face-to-face on my street, but I have this blog. I’d like to think of you all as my virtual neighbors. I’d also like to think I’m pretty good at writing. This thought train led me to remember a quarantine romance parable I wrote a few years ago, which is especially apropos for these times.

As with many writers, I take care not to share stories on my blog that I think could be published. (Publishers usually want stories that have not been published elsewhere, not even on personal blogs.) But, due to the nature of this story and the nature of the circumstances we find ourselves in, I am going to share my short story, “The Shower Singer,” as a serial in my blog.

The tale is set in Minneapolis. The story does not provide all the answers. It makes readers think. It’s one of a series that I’m working on for an anthology on the theme of deceiving appearances. I’ve completed five stories and am currently working on a sixth. I figure once I have seven done, I might have enough for a book.

I will start the series tomorrow. I hope it offers a fun, but relevant distraction during these trying times for you, my virtual neighbors, as we fight an invisible enemy together.