American Life in 2024
By Tim Sandlin // illustrations by birgitta sif
AS FATE WOULD have it, my PaPaw’s seventieth birthday and the end of our forty-eighth month in isolation fell on the same day. To celebrate, my son, Chub, who is stuck in an employee dorm at Old Faithful, set up a Zoom party for the family. Four years into this plague and I still haven’t figured out Zoom. I can join meetings but can’t organize one.
So the three generations—PaPaw and MeMaw from their place in Moose; me (Peter Pym) and my wife, Delores, from our house in Jackson; our daughter, Ambrosia, in an apartment in Florence, Italy, where she is supposed to be studying art history but isn’t; and Chub—all got together on our various computer screens, looking like the opening credits from The Brady Bunch, to sing “Happy Birthday” to PaPaw.
I’m not certain he noticed. PaPaw has sort of faded in the last few years of sitting in his Barcalounger, eating cheddar popcorn and watching TV.
The first year it was 1960s bowling, the so-called Golden Age of Bowling. He was sharp enough to tell you Bill Bunette’s average score on the pro circuit, but not sharp enough to distinguish Coke from Mountain Dew.
Then he discovered Willow TV—all cricket all the time. With no clue as to rules or terminology, PaPaw sat through twenty-four hours a day of boys in white flannels with little canoe paddles running from stick to stick. Every four hours or so, they broke for tea. That’s when PaPaw microwaved his popcorn.
PaPaw hasn’t had a haircut since the original outbreak. He looks like Mr. Natural in his gnome phase.
“What’s Dad watching these days?” I asked MeMaw, who has developed a weird eye tic. PaPaw doesn’t seem to blink at all. MeMaw’s eyelashes flutter like a moth caught in a sticky trap.
“He’s stuck on Dog TV,” she said.
Delores asked, “Is that like Pet TV only more niche?”
MeMaw fluttered. “Pet TV is for people who own pets. Dog TV is for dogs. You work at home and feel guilty about not playing with your dogs, you plop them in front of Dog TV all day. It’s mostly Frisbee catching or sleeping by the fireplace.”
I found this intriguing. “And PaPaw watches with Fluff Puff?”
“Fluff Puff can’t watch. Our TV isn’t digital. Dogs can’t focus on the picture on pre-digital televisions.”
I didn’t know that. Even in lockup, you can learn new things.
MeMaw fluttered onward. “They did a study and dogs get nervous when TVs bark, so the videos run with light classical music and no dog sounds. I think PaPaw likes the music better than the Stupid Dog Tricks, but it distracts me from my puzzles.”
MeMaw has dedicated her self-quarantine to jigsaw puzzles. She orders 1,000-piece boxes from Puzzle Overstock.
“The last one was all lavender and took two months. I’m running out of space,” MeMaw said.
Mom can’t stand the thought of breaking up a masterpiece so she leaves them where they are and orders a new card table from Amazon. My parents have seventeen set-up card tables in their house now, each one sporting its own table-size work of jigsaw art.
“My new puzzle is the Tetons from Shadow Mountain,” MeMaw said. “You’d be surprised how many puzzles make use of Teton shots. They have the aspens in autumn. Makes it almost impossible to tell pieces apart.”
“I have a continuous loop of the Dornan’s webcam,” Ambrosia said. “I rode my bicycle toward the Cathedral Group for nine and a half hours yesterday while listening to Hidden Falls. Then I counted cats out my window. I’m up to 5,281, although some might be repeats.”
“Were you wearing hazmat?” I asked, feeling like I was addressing Charo on Hollywood Squares. Ambrosia’s wardrobe has morphed into designer hazmat. Technically, she could go outside in Italy if she borrowed a dog to walk, but she doesn’t. Instead, she drinks Chianti and rides her stationary bike in a nature scene.
“Of course.” She did a little twirl in front of her computer camera. “This one is by Alberta Ferretti.”
Her suit was stylish. It had the Ferretti logo—a Chinese-word-looking ink spot—across the mask and fake prison tattoos running up the sleeves. I suspect Ambrosia sleeps in hazmat. I’m afraid to ask.
Delores, my lovely wife, reads the news off her phone from get-up to go-to-bed. She’s obsessed with infection rates and hot spot curves. In between news flashes, she writes letters to the editor.
Chub asked if there are any editors left since the Emperor closed all media.
“They call themselves ‘influencers’ now,” Delores said. “They keep popping up on blogs and vlogs. Bogs, all kinds of new places. The Emperor is playing Whac-A-Mole.” A lot of them come out of Delaware since Delaware broke off into its own nation.
Teton County tried to form a break-away, but the government sent in mercenaries from Ottawa and that’s why we haven’t been outside, officially, in two years. I sneak out at night to collect feathers and roadkill hide for my fly tying. That’s what I do to pass time. I tie flies.
My flies keep getting bigger as the months go by. I’ve created flies as big as bats. They scare Delores when I leave one in the bed.
Chub was at Old Faithful on a school field trip when the Wichita, Kansas, riots broke out and everyone was ordered to shelter in place for life. He watches the geyser go off from his window. The Park employees have a group competition for who can watch every episode of every show on Netflix.
Chub was leading till he got to “Umbrella Academy,” which gave him an eating disorder that made pizza smell like West Thumb.
The competition winner receives a rock Cornish game hen that popped out of Teton Glacier during the Great Melt of 2022. Chub has a girlfriend he’s never seen in West Covina, California, although I suspect she’s a Russian bot. So many Californians are.
So, we sang “Happy Birthday” to PaPaw while he watched a dachshund ride a mechanical vacuum cleaner around a nursing home. MeMaw showed us a completed jigsaw, which was a photo of the last polar bear cut into a thousand pieces. Delores read us a letter to the editor deploring the name change from Oklahoma to Trumpville. I showed them a dead hummingbird on a hook, Ambrosia saw a cat with two heads, and Chub stuck his phone to the window while Old Faithful soared skyward.
A typical day for a typical family in 2024. JH
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