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Life in the Time of Corona


Bob Ave

Bob Ave’s short story “Sprinkler” was published in The Hurricane Review in 2013. He was born in Miami in 1969. Currently, he is a nursing home social worker. He has his own private investigations firm. Previously, he spent nearly 20 years as a protective investigator for Department of Children and Family Services. Before that he was a social studies teacher at Pine Forest High School.

"Kutina"  is a continuation of Bob's Phase I submission, "Prayer to Theotikus."

Ana Gömböcz Sladović was born on December 25, 1908 in what was the Kingdom of Croatia-Slavonia, part of the Kingdom of Hungary—dominions of Austria-Hungary. She was from the small town of Kutina. Her father was Croatian, her mother a Hungarian. The region was riddled with ethnic strife and economic hardships due to the ongoing military and political feuding between the Austrian, Russian and Ottoman empires. In 1912 Ana’s father, Ivan, packed up the family and traded in the thousand-year-old Habsburg Empire for the one hundred and thirty-six-year-old republic in the New World. At four years old she would see the Statue of Liberty for the first time. At that age she learned how to talk in her family’s mish-mash of German-Croatian-Hungarian. Now she would have to put that all aside to learn a new language. 

   Cleveland, Ohio is where Ana’s family settled along with a number of immigrants from the Balkans, Croats and Slovenes mainly. At the time World War I came about, there was great pressure to “Americanize.” Immigrants from Austria-Hungary were looked upon with suspicion as the United States had declared war on that county as well as Germany in 1917. Ana’s family did all they could to shed any trace of their “Austrian” identity and be “true Americans.” Use of any other language in the home—besides English—was forbidden. Ana learned it quickly and spoke it well. The family was very vocal about supporting the war against the “Hun” (ironically being Hungarian themselves). To show their patriotism Ana’s Uncle Stefan joined the U.S. Army and saw action on the Western Front. He returned a shell shocked veteran with severe PTSD in a permanent psychosis. Ana’s mother took care of her damaged uncle until he died at an early age, never regaining his sanity.  

 The war ended in 1919 and new hope emerged. Was there a new and just world free of tyranny? Would there be democracy for all? Not really. War’s end was just an excuse to ratchet up the hatred against immigrants. Then came the Red Scare, Palmer raids and a near-halt to immigration from Europe. Slavs and Germans were of particular scrutiny. The focus became so deep, the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution was able to be ratified banning the sale, transportation and production of alcoholic spirits. How did this fit in with the postwar xenophobia? Anti-German (and lesser extent anti-Slavic) forces took aim at German-named or owned breweries and saloons. The latter were hubs of immigrant social networking. Soon, all of this would take a back seat to a new war against a silent killer. . .a killer that could care less who you were or where you were born.  

 Ten-year-old Ana was confined to her home. She and her mother watched in horror as they saw the body her friend--another immigrant girl, wrapped in a sheet--being loaded onto a truck and being taken away by the Health Department. The girl was the same age and from the same region, the newly-formed Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes—a.k.a. Yugoslavia. She was a victim of the H1N1 pandemic, the Spanish Flu. It killed 25 million in as many weeks.  It would go on to kill many more millions as it swept the globe. Ana and her family survived.

“Bob?. . .Bob?!” my boss, Southern Oaks nursing home administrator in Pensacola where I work, asked at morning standup meeting.

    I fumbled for my notes as I regained my concentration. My mind had wandered off. Anxiety does that to me. “Sorry! Yes. Well, nothing new for Social Services. Due to COVID, dental services are not able to get in the building.”

    “What about eyeglasses?” one of the unit managers asked.

    “Optical services are closed down. Can’t order any.”

    “Anything else?” the administrator asked.

    “Phone calls to families, those I can talk to under HIPPA, making sure we keep a line open to the outside.”

    “Alright, that’s it,” the administrator said, “Health Department, State, will be in the building. Let’s make sure we’re doing what we’re supposed to. So far, they’ve given us good grades. Let’s keep it up. We’re up to 90-something positives so far.”

    My mind wandered off again as people trickled out of the room. I thought of my grandmother telling me the story of surviving the Spanish Flu. She died in 2006 at age 98. She never saw Croatia again even after independence. I hoped I would see Kutina before I died.

    It’s come full circle in exactly a hundred years, I thought.

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