It’s hard not to love Monterey Buchanan’s short story about finding love in the age of the coronavirus. Without giving too much away, her heroine’s quest for toilet paper ends with a surprise happy development, making light of an otherwise dark situation and giving us some much-needed hope.
Buchanan won third place in our coronavirus flash-fiction contest. We’ll announce second and first place tomorrow and Friday, respectively.
Learn more about Buchanan and her inspiration at the end of this story. Happy reading.
The Toilet Paper Baron of Metro Denver
By Monterey Buchanan
The groceries sat patiently in the back of my car as I smoothed my hair into something like my typical bob in the rear-view mirror.
“We must look our best, even in a crisis,” my mother’s voice crackled over the video call. I felt my lips curve up in a smile. Good to know my mother’s sense of humor was still intact, even if mine was not. I had gotten all of our food at the little natural market where my mom usually shopped, but the tension of driving to every grocery store in Denver only to be greeted by empty toilet paper shelves was really starting to build up in my neck and shoulders. If King Soopers didn’t have any, I was in trouble. Mom must have sensed my frustration.
“Are you sure you can handle it, dear? I can meet you if-”
“No, Mom. Do not come down here,” I said tersely, trying to keep the panic out of my voice. My mom hated any suggestion that she couldn’t do things on her own at the best of times, so the reminder that being “old” and having asthma put her at high risk was not to be mentioned out loud.
“You could text Adam if they haven’t got the toilet paper in the store,” Mom suggested.
Adam, my narcissistic ex, had connections at a toilet paper company, and had once dubbed himself The Toilet Paper Baron of Metro Denver. This was a forgettable fact back before all this started, but it now made him Mr. Darcy, at least in the eyes of all the mothers in Denver mentioning to their daughters that he had 10,000 rolls a year.
I reluctantly brought up our last text chain, considering undoing all the progress I had made in therapy and contacting him. Then I saw the picture he’d sent about three months ago just as the toilet paper shortage had started: himself (of course) in a suit, in front of a giant wall of toilet paper fresh off an assembly line somewhere. The caption read: “Miss me now, babe?”
True, these were desperate times. But not that desperate.
“I can still see you if you roll your eyes on camera, honey,” Mom’s voice said.
“There’s no need to call Adam. I’ll get the paper,” I said, trying to hide a sudden blush, and turning off the video chat.
The supermarkets were all trying to maintain an illusion of normalcy: bright lights, workers in uniform, front displays of fruits and vegetables stacked high. This was all shattered by a heady smell of bleach the second I walked through the doors, and the box of now-mandatory social distancing arm bracelets, in an assortment of bright colors (as if that made them less weird) sitting casually in a box next to the shopping carts. As soon as I put on a pastel blue one, it zapped me on the wrist.
“Please back up. Maintain six feet of social distance,” the little robot voice said.
Seriously? There was no one near me.
“Sorry Olivia,” a voice behind me said, and I turned to see Theo with a shy half-grin and several days worth of beard stubble, backing away. His normally bright blue eyes were surrounded by dark circles. Funny to think that before all this, I had been considering asking Theo out for a drink, back when such things were possible. But we all had other stuff to worry about now.
“Think fast!” I said, tossing a red bracelet his way, which he disinfected and then put on. “You, uh…headed to the war zone?” he asked, pointing to the toilet paper section, smiling and leaning against his cart for a moment. It rolled past the six-foot limit, and when he ran forward to get it back, his bracelet zapped him.
“I am,” I said, biting back a giggle.
I knew I shouldn’t laugh, but it was the first time there’d been anything to laugh about in a month. Wait…was he flirting? Not that I objected, but who flirted during an apocalypse? Either he was a hero in a YA novel, or this was wishful thinking because I finally liked a decent guy and wanted him to like me back. No, this was my imagination. Besides, we all had bigger stuff to worry about anyway.
We walked together (sort of) and reached a long line of exhausted people on the back wall where the toilet paper was stocked, kept orderly by three grocery store employees in yellow rubber gloves. Even from my position at the back, I could hear the front worker yelling “One packet per shopper!”
There were several people now between Theo and me thanks in part to a woman with a giant brown purse who pushed past me, completely ignoring the zap on both our wrists. During the long wait, I texted Theo, serious this time:
OLIVIA: You ok?
There was a brief silence, then he texted back:
THEO: My dad’s still going to work. Essential employee.
Yeah, he definitely had better things to worry about than flirting. I sent back a sad face emoji.
THEO: Thanks. Up all night worrying.
OLIVIA: Me too. My mom’s high risk. Suggested I text The Baron to get the toilet paper.
THEO: Do not contact that jerk! You’re doing so well.
OLIVIA: Hope I don’t have to.
THEO: Can I help?
Why did he have to be so sweet? There was nothing he could do to help, no matter how badly I wanted him to.
OLIVIA: No, but thanks. All this is the worst isn’t it?
Suddenly, yells and screams came from the front of the line. A full-on brawl had broken out over a twenty-four pack of Charmin, the cacophony growing louder as the grocery workers pulled the lady with the purse away from a man in a face mask, clutching the toilet paper like his first-born son. The workers occupied, it became a free for all: everyone pushing past and stepping over each other in desperation.
I tried to get in there, but with so many bracelet zaps I spent too much time cradling my arm to get anywhere near the shelves. Soon it was too late. The lady with the purse was finally restrained, and another worker held up a gloved hand.
“We’re out for today.”
Looking past him, I saw it was true. The shelves were completely empty. My stomach sank.
“Please, I’ve been all over the city…My mom doesn’t have anyone else to shop for her…”
“We restock in a few days. Try again then.” The other grocery store workers were on their feet now, looking angry, disheveled, but ready for round two if I started it. There was nothing left to do but go with the nuclear option.
Minutes later, standing next to my car, I pulled up Adam’s number on my phone, scrolling quickly past the ugly break-up texts and the picture, composing a new message:
Hey Babe. Sorry to ghost you. Need a favor…
Ugh. Just writing it made my fingers shake and stomach churn. Then a voice behind me called:
“Hey Olivia, think fast!”
Theo was posed like one of the Nuggets shooting a three-pointer, and a second later, a four pack of toilet paper landed in my empty shopping basket.
“Thanks!” I called back, blushing hard again. Had he really managed to snag a second pack for me?
“No problem!” he called. I waited until he got in his car and drove away before video messaging my mother, disinfecting and holding up the toilet paper with a triumphant grin.
“Look what I found for you!” I said.
My mom adjusted her glasses and squinted at the screen.
“That’s great, dear, but I think that’s for you.”
My mother motioned for me to turn the packaging around. On the other side, a note read:
Drinks when the apocalypse is over?
What inspired your short story?
Some of this story has been ripped from headlines and social media. Pictures of bare shelves are common on Facebook, along with horror stories that quickly shattered the “it-could-never-happen-here” mentality I subconsciously had. I remain worried for friends and family in at-risk groups and essential jobs. This combined with seemingly trivial happenings — like the toilet paper shortage, the hunt for a love life, the desire to focus on something other than the crisis, and the struggle to keep life as normal as possible, make for a kind of dark comedy I really needed to write. I wanted to address the issues we are all grappling with in this historical moment, while also injecting a little hope and escapism into these troubling times.
Tell us a little about yourself.
I was raised in Denver and enjoy writing about life in Colorado with a touch of the magical or unexpected. I received my MFA in creative writing from Regis University in 2019, and hope to publish my middle grade fantasy novel in the future. I’ve been known to hop genres from fiction to playwriting and back again, with a smattering of TV show reviews and opinion pieces in between. Say hi at firstname.lastname@example.org. When not writing, tutoring, or in quarantine, I enjoy spending time with my family and playing with my dogs in Washington Park.