This story is a remix of The Use of Force by William Carlos Williams
She was a stranger to me, but one detail told me everything about her, the mask. Please put your mask over your nose; it’s the only way it works.
When I said this, she looked up at me in surprise, her eyes were a beautiful light hazel that looked wrong inside that accusatory look, and she simply said, Excuse me? and stepped closer to me. I stepped back but kept myself between her and the door. I think I misheard, she added. It sounded like some random man was out here trying to tell me how to live my life.
Ma’am, masks are required to be worn properly at all times in order to enter this store. She took steps to try to go around me, but I took steps too and remained a barrier. Ma’am, masks are required to be worn properly at all times in order to enter this store. I could see her making calculations in her mind, eyes darting between me and the door, looking around to see if anyone was watching. As often, in such cases, she’d rather do the more difficult thing for us both rather than bend to the will of a stranger and admit she’s wrong. She intended to support my measly salary whether I liked it or not.
The woman was biding her time, fists on hips, arms akimbo, not believing the reality of the situation, thinking maybe I’d let her pass if she just waited me out. She was attractive—her skin glistening in the rising sun, the shadows cast by her flowing brown hair criss-crossing her face—so I’m sure this worked for her all the time. Her expression softened and she took her mask off. Without the mask, I could see more clearly that her face was flushed and I realized that she must have a fever. She should have been back home Instagramming her quarantine but instead she was out here trying to buy groceries with the virus dominating her body.
I’m not gonna wear the stupid mask, began the woman and it’s all a hoax anyway. I’m fine and healthy, just trying to buy myself food, like everyone else, but you’d rather see me starve. Just put on the mask, I said. Put on the mask and I’ll let you through.
To my mind it seemed simple enough. What’s the big deal about wearing a mask for half an hour? But the way her face hardened again told me this was about way more than just wearing a mask.
She looked at me firmly, almost grinning. No. No, I’m not gonna do it.
Then you might as well go back home and stop wasting both of our time, I said. You’re not coming in. But the woman showed no intention of giving up and dropped the mask to the ground.
I had tried to warn her, but words were no use.
As it happens, we had been having a spike in cases of Covid-19 all across the county. I had been checking the numbers almost daily at that point. And all I could think was she definitely had it and I had to sacrifice myself to keep the world safe.
Let’s be reasonable, I said, the mask protects the community from the spread. I smiled in my best professional manner. Is that what you want, for people to die from it? Because they will.
Aw, come on, I coaxed, just put the mask on and you can go in, no more trouble. The virus is very real and the masks keep it from spreading. I’m not a bad guy. I was mostly trying to convince myself. Her fervent silence had begun to break my confidence.
Is there a problem here? It was my manager. Look ma’am, we have a state-mandated policy, pointing to the sign on the door. If we don’t we could be fined by the government, same as you.
At that I ground my teeth in disgust. If only he wouldn’t use the words “state-mandated” I might be able to get somewhere. She shouldn’t do it because she has to, she should do it because she wants to. But I did not let my manager’s opposite strategy deter my own.
As I bent to pick up the dropped mask, she kicked at my head with an awkward motion like a dancing Elaine and even though I pulled my head back, she nearly caught a clear hit. In fact, her foot grazed my temple and clipped my ear, but I still had the mask in my grasp as I stood back up.
Both my manager and I almost turned ourselves inside out in anger and disbelief. You’re crazy lady, said the manager, shaking his fist at her. You coulda really hurt him with that kick—
For Heaven’s sake, I broke in. The kick doesn’t matter! She could literally kill hundreds of people by walking into the store without a mask on and it’s nothing to her! Look here I said to the woman, you are going to wear this mask. You’re a full grown adult woman so you should understand what I’m saying. Will you put it on now by yourself or shall we have to put it on for you?
Not a move. Even her expression hadn’t changed. Her breaths however were coming faster and faster. Then the battle began. I had to do it. I had to get that mask over her face for the protection of the community. But first I told the woman one last time that it was entirely up to her. I explained the danger of going maskless and said I would not force it on her if she would finally acquiesce and put it on herself. If you don’t do what he says you’ll never get in this store again, the manager admonished her severely.
Oh yeah? I had to smile to myself. After all, I had already fallen in love with this stupid woman, my manager was contemptible to me. In the ensuing struggle he grew more and more abject, crushed, exhausted while she surely rose to magnificent heights of insane fury of effort bred by her resolute individualism.
The manager tried his best, and he was a big man but the fact that she was just some woman, his shame at the way this had escalated and his dread of hurting her made him release her just at the critical moment several times when I almost had achieved success, till I wanted to kill him. But his dread also that she might never learn her lesson made him tell me to go on, go on though he himself was almost fainting, while a group of onlookers started to gather around us, some of them making comments about the scene. It’s for the good of the community, I shouted at them, and ordered the manager to hold both her wrists.
But as soon as he did the woman let out a scream. Don’t, you’re hurting me. Let go of my hands. Let them go, I tell you. Then she shrieked terrifyingly, hysterically. Stop it! Stop it! You’re killing me! Do you think she can stand it! said the manager.
Just hold her, I told him. Do you want her to give everyone Covid? Come on now, hold her, I said.
Then I grasped the woman’s head with my left hand and tried to get the N-95 over her mouth. She fought, shaking her head back and forth, desperately! But now I also had grown furious – at a fool. I tried to hold myself down but I couldn’t. I know how to put on a mask. And I did my best. When finally I got the mask over both ears and just to the point of covering her nose, she got free her hand for an instant but before I could grab it back down again and gripping the mask between her fingers she tore it away and held it tight in her grip. Aren’t you ashamed, the manager yelled at her. Aren’t you ashamed to act like this in public? Get me another mask of some sort, I told the manager. We’re going through with this. The woman’s knees and elbows were already bleeding. She had cut her own cheek with her nail and she was screaming in wild hysterical shrieks. Perhaps I should have desisted and just let her be on her way. No doubt it would have been better. But I have watched both my own mom and my best friend’s grandfather die of this disease, and feeling that I must do something now or never, I went at it again. But the worst of it was that I too had got beyond reason. I could have torn the woman apart in my own fury and enjoyed it. It was a pleasure to attack her. My face was burning with it. The damned bitch must be protected against her own idiocy, one says to oneself at such times. Others must be protected against her. It is social necessity. And all these things are true. But a blind fury, a feeling of adult shame, bred of a longing for muscular release are the operatives One goes on to the end. In a final unreasoning assault I overpowered the woman’s arms and held them. I forced the new mask over her face and around her head. And then it was done and she was struggling to breathe. She had fought valiantly to keep from wearing the mask, but I knew her secret. She had been hiding her symptoms and Iying to her friends, lying to herself, in order to escape just such an outcome as this.
Now truly she was furious. She had been on the defensive before but now she attacked. Tried to rip free of my grasp and fly at me while tears of defeat blinded her eyes.