After they spent the first few days of the spring seeding season working out the kinks, the Hansons had things well underway by the beginning of the second week. Until late Friday morning when Jeff’s cell phone rang. Jeff was in the tractor seeding canola, just about to break into his lunch cooler.
“Hey,” Jeff said into the phone. “Spraying going okay?”
It was Mark Edwards, the Hansons’ employee.
“Yeah,” Mark answered. “But I just had a call.”
Jeff waited for Mark to go on. When he didn’t, Jeff finally asked. “So, who called?”
“Remember the guy that was out here Monday morning to look at the hydraulic pump?” Mark asked.
“Yeah,” Jeff said. “It’s working fine now.”
“The tractor’s good,” Mark said. “But the mechanic had COVID.”
“What?” Jeff asked, so distracted he let the lid of his lunch cooler fall closed.
“A contact tracer phoned me. She said I’m a ‘non-close contact.’”
“What does that mean?” Jeff asked.
“I might have COVID. Or I might not.”
“Well, damn,” Jeff said. The Hansons had made it through the first year of the pandemic with no scares. But now here it was.
A million questions ran through Jeff’s mind. How could they get through seeding without Mark? Had he stood close to Mark since Monday? What if he caught it? How could they seed if they were two men down? What if the kids caught it?
Jeff’s mind ran back to Mark.
“You can’t go home,” he said.
“They say I don’t have to isolate, since I’m not a close-contact. But yeah. Jody doesn’t get her vaccine until next week. I might be able to stay with her aunt until I get tested and we figure out if I have this thing.”
Mark and his wife had been extra vigilant for the past year, since Jody’s diabetes put her at extra risk.
“You can stay at Mom and Dad’s condo in town,” Jeff said. “Mom’s been here at the farm all through seeding anyway.”
“Thanks,” Mark said. “I’ll do that, if nobody minds.”
“How are you feeling?” Jeff thought to ask. “I didn’t hear you coughing when you were filling up in the yard.”
“I’m okay,” Mark said. “But I’ll feel better once I get tested.”
“Me too,” Jeff said, still trying to recall exactly how close Mark had been yesterday in the shop when they’d had a short coffee break. After the first few months of trying to stay six feet away from Mark, since there had never been too many cases in the area, the Hansons and Mark had all gradually let their guards down.
“I booked a test for Monday morning,” Mark said.
“And there’s something else,” Mark said in a tone that made Jeff worry. “I took Jenny for a ride in the sprayer yesterday afternoon,” Mark admitted. “I know I shouldn’t have. But she really wanted to go.”
With in-person school cancelled since Easter break, Jeff’s six-year-old daughter Jenny was bored. Jeff couldn’t blame Mark for letting the girl talk him into taking her out to the field. Just yesterday, Jenny had convinced Jeff to drive her all the way to town for ice cream. Jenny was persuasive. But what if both the kids got sick? And Elaine too?
“Well, damn,” Jeff said, again.
“Yup,” said Mark.
“Is the mechanic sick?” Jeff thought to ask.
“Asymptomatic,” Mark said.
“I better go,” Mark said. “I’ve gotta fill again.”
Jeff phoned his wife.
“You’re kidding,” Elaine said. “We’re keeping the kids home so they don’t get COVID, and COVID comes out here to us?”
After a year of staying, mostly, away from her friends, Jeff’s mother felt the same way. “I might as well have had more lunches out in restaurants,” Donna said. “Do you want Jenny to come and stay with me and your dad? It’s been two weeks since we had our vaccines. If she gets sick we likely won’t catch it.”
“Who would’ve thought a pandemic would involve so much logistics?” Jeff asked. “She might as well stay where she is. If she’s got it, we likely all have it already.”
“Try not to worry,” Donna said. “Mark probably doesn’t have it. He’s been keeping away from people for so long, he probably stayed six feet back without even noticing.”
Always a good host, Donna told Jeff she had to hang up the phone. “I’ll run to town and put some clean sheets on the bed in the condo for Mark,” she said. “He’ll probably want some bread and peanut butter for his breakfasts too.”
Jeff’s father, Dale, came out with the seed tender to fill the drill before Jeff could phone him with the news. Jeff shouted at him over the noise of the auger.
“Well, damn,” Dale said. “I hope Mark doesn’t get sick. Or Jenny. Or any of you. When they said they were vaccinating seniors first, I didn’t think that would mean me and your mom out seeding the crop by ourselves.”
“We all should’ve been more careful,” Jeff said.
“Don’t beat yourself up,” Dale said. “We’re not the only family that’s had a scare over this thing.”
Soon Jeff was back in the cab again, alone, worrying. What if Mark got sick? Could they get through seeding without hiring someone else? Who could they even hire? By the time they trained someone else to fill in for Mark, seeding would be finished anyway.
But never mind the farm. What if Mark got really sick? All of the Hansons loved Mark. If they hadn’t asked him to tell the mechanic what was wrong with the tractor, Mark wouldn’t even be in this situation. Could the Hansons have done more to keep Mark safe? How could Jeff ever face Jody if anything happened to Mark?
Jeff’s cell phone rang. Mark. Was he calling to tell Jeff he had a sore throat? A fever?
“Are you okay?” Jeff asked.
“I’m fine. I wanted to make sure you want the northeast quarter sprayed next,” Mark said. “I don’t want to get too far ahead of the seeding.”
“Go ahead with that one,” Jeff said. “And call me right away if you don’t feel well.”
After living with a year of semi-uncertainty, this extra worry, during such a busy time of year, at a time that was supposed to be so close to the pandemic finish line, was almost more than Jeff could manage. He felt a scratch in his throat. Was it the dust in the cab, like every other year, or was it COVID-19? His stomach made a gurgling noise, and he felt a cramp. Was this a symptom too? Then Jeff realized it was already 1:00 and he’d been so distracted he’d forgotten to eat his lunch.
Jeff lifted the lid of his lunch cooler. A handwritten note had been set in the Tupperware container on top of his ham and mustard sandwich. Jeff recognized his daughter’s uneven printing. “Be saf. We love yu,” it said.
Jeff started calculating how many hours it would be before they had the results of Mark’s test.