Strange Cravings

It’s amazing how much has changed in the weeks since my last article in which I wrote about how fast COVID-19 was spreading and how policy makers weren’t taking it seriously. Since then, the number of deaths doubled every week. The problem became impossible to ignore. Government officials reacted, thankfully, better late than never. But now, in some cases, they’ve gone too far. I mean, come on, why close all the pools? COVID-19 is no match for chlorine!

Meanwhile, I got a fever, which probably wasn’t COVID-19, but who knows? There aren’t tests available even for healthcare workers who exhibit symptoms, much less people like me, who recover in twenty-four hours.

Along with my health, my appetite returned with a vengeance. Yesterday, although our fridge was stocked like never before, I went to Ralphs to buy more. I was craving something different and also, we were down to the last roll of toilet paper (which is now completely gone).

The shelves at Ralphs were barren. Shoppers cast cold looks of judgement at anyone who had more than one of any given item in their carts, which they all did. One man had a cart of nothing but eggs, all the remaining eggs in the store. I might have said something except I didn’t care about eggs, not anymore, and plus it’s still a free country. Right?

There was hardly any toilet paper left, so out of politeness I just bought a four-pack of Scott® 2-ply, which wasn’t nearly enough. The first roll was gone before I reached the car. It just melted in my mouth. Like cotton candy. Same with the second roll and the third. I tried to save the fourth roll—TP was the one thing my wife had asked me to buy—but rolling out of the parking lot I hit a red light and sitting there with the last roll cradled in my lap was more than I could take. I had to have it in my belly. And as soon as I had that thought, the roll was gone.

At Gelson’s they were limiting customers to a maximum eight-pack, which I bought along with a carton of milk I had no intention of drinking just so people would think I was normal. But eight rolls of single-ply wasn’t going to cut it. I was starving. I had to have more.

So, I went to Costco, along with half of LA, where I believed it was impossible but apparently I was wrong—all the toilet paper was all gone. 

All except for the three eighteen packs of Charmin® which an oversized woman, wearing a floral-patterned purple robe, had jammed into her giant cart, along with a bucket of Cheetos. She had pink, slabby cheeks and tiny eyes, set too far back in her head. She looked depraved. Obviously, we shared the same hunger for processed paper. Although she had me by two hundred pounds, at least, my arms were quite long. I had the advantage when it came to reach, and plus I was starving—hungrier than ever—and with my only chance of satiation right there in her cart, taking her Charmin® was not an option. It was a must. Which she must have read on my face because as I approached, she opened her robe.

Now, before I describe what was underneath—and yes, it was far worse than you’re thinking—I have to back up and tell you whose address I learned one late-night walk back in November, back before all this happened, back when if I had told you about COVID-19, you would have said my story was too far-fetched.

It was a Saturday night. We were at a friend’s who was a successful screenwriter and ergo could afford a house in Laurel Canyon, and not on the valley side, either, I’m talking Hollywood hills. The narrow road behind his house offered sweeping vistas from Hollywood to downtown, all the way to the Pacific. As we climbed up the road, the lights of the LA basin seemed to sprawl on forever. Perched atop the hill, which was really more like a mountain, was a towering mansion of concrete and steel which, our friend revealed, was the residence of John Kimberly, the tissue paper tycoon and founder of Kimberly-Clark which every day converted ten thousand trees into the tasty, fluffy stuff. 

Anyway, under the big woman’s robe was a t-shirt, an XXL, for the worst boy band of all time, NSYNC. (Do you have any idea how much I hate NSYNC?) But that wasn’t the worst part. Even the pistol in her shoulder holster wasn’t so bad. I had a gun, too, a new Beretta pistol from Gun World on Magnolia Boulevard. Gun stores were one of the few “essential businesses” allowed to remain open during the pandemic, and with nothing better to do, we all braved the long lines in order to cash our unemployment checks on guns and ammo. No, the big woman’s gun wasn’t a problem in and of itself. The problem was that hanging from her neck on a silver chain was a badge. She was LAPD, some kind of undercover detective in the Vice division, as it turned out. And she had my toilet paper. 

So, there I was with an LAPD detective making sure I got a good look at her gun and her badge as she stepped in front of her cart.

What could I do? If didn’t get at least one roll of her TP, it felt like I would die. 

She reached behind her and squeezed the Charmin®. “Back off.”

But I couldn’t back off. I had to use her deplorable condition to my advantage.

I held up my hands in surrender. “What are you going to do when all that runs out?”

Her lip trembled. “What do you mean?”

“I mean who knows when and if the stores will restock. And let’s be honest, you’re going to have to consume a certain volume per day in order to maintain that figure.”

Her eyes widened—only briefly, but enough to know I had her—and then she smirked. “I guess you’ve got some bright idea, huh?”

I shrugged. “Maybe, I do.”

She crossed her arms. “And what’s that going to cost me?”

“Just two rolls, for now. And we split the haul.”

She tore open one of the eighteen packs. Removed two rolls. Took a big bite of one and held out the other.

As I reached for it, she pulled back. “Let’s hear it first.”

“We’ve got a trust issue, here. I’m going way out on a limb just to include you in this,” I lied. Truth was John Kimberly’s house was surrounded by a ten-foot fence topped with razor wire, with Dobermans, surveillance cameras, and private security. I needed a cop to get in. “I mean, this isn’t exactly all above board.”

“Don’t have to worry about that,” she said. “Desperate times. Maybe I am a cop, but I’m also a human being, or at least I was.” She glanced back, in her cart, at the Cheetos, as if lamenting that she now desired Charmin® more. She took another bite. “Anyway, I’ve got to eat.” The way she talked while she chewed should have been disgusting but right then I would have eaten masticated Charmin® from the palm of her hand.

Outside Costco, she led me to a beige Civic with a dented bumper and ordered me into the passenger seat while she stowed the goods in the trunk. A smart move on her part, and I was too lightheaded to protest.

As she climbed into the driver’s seat, the shocks groaned. 

I lolled my head on the headrest. “It’s going to take both of us to pull this off,” I lied, again. “I need a roll now or I’m going to pass out.”

She reached into her robe and came out with two rolls, one for her and one for me. Eating together felt like a communion, of sorts, a mutual understanding, a coming to terms with our new diet, which was natural, in a way, since the virus which had changed us was itself a product of nature. Maybe, this was how we were meant to be. We were going to be okay.

“So, where’s this ‘haul’?” she asked.

“Take the 101.”

She started the car. “I’m going to need a little more than that.”

“The less you know the better. Plausible deniability.”

“That’s not a real thing,” she said but she drove out of the lot and towards the 101.

The sky was overcast. As we merged onto the freeway it started to drizzle. Turns out her name was Danielle, and she was more concerned with how much toilet paper we would get rather than where exactly or how we were going to obtain it. 

“Infinite,” I finally admitted. “I’m talking factory access.”

Her eyes widened. She accelerated. She reached towards me.

I reflexively swatted her hand away.

“Chill.” She popped the glove box. Removed a portable blue strobe. Mounted it on the dash. Pressed a button on the steering wheel that activated a siren, which sounded from somewhere inside the dash, below the strobe. We exited onto Laurel Canyon where, one by one, she blew through all the red lights. One of LA’s finest.

As we crossed Mulholland, the rain stopped. She reached into her robe, produced another roll of the Charmin®, unhinged her jaw and stretched her lips and shoved the whole roll all in at once, like a python swallowing its prey.

I feared I was seeing my future but turns out it’s worse.

Somehow, she managed to get her mouth closed around the roll and commenced the massive effort of masticating all that soft scrumptious paper. 

I pointed at the sign for Lookout Mountain. “Turn right.”

She skidded tires through every turn. I white-knuckled the grab handle and prayed for my life.

As she chewed, she grunted. She spit the mangled tube, like an olive pit, out the window. Then glanced over at me. “That was the last roll. So, you’d better be right about this haul, for both our sakes.”

The road was narrow and steep. Her fender raked a fence, but she plowed on seemingly unaware. The siren wailed.

Ahead, Kimberly’s mansion was shrouded in the fog which hung over the mountain.

I pointed at his gate. “That’s it!”

Instead of slowing down, she sped up. I tried to protest but before the words emerged from my mouth, she smashed her Civic into Kimberly’s gate. I flew forward. The airbag punched my face. She reversed.

I batted down the airbag. “Shouldn’t we have tried talking our way in, first?”

“You can’t talk your way into a place like this, not without a warrant.” She climbed out.

Steam billowed from the engine. The gate was knocked off its hinges. She shoved through the gap between it and the fence, her midsection like a rubber ball pressed through a roller.

I shouldered out of the car and hurried after her.

Darkness was falling. Kimberly’s mansion towered up into the cloud. The narrow strip of land between his mansion and the surrounding fence was paved with bleached-white tile. 

A security guard, sporting a six-inch goatee, trotted out of the mist. “I called the police,” he said.

Danielle held out her badge. “I am the police.”

As he approached for a closer look, she shot him in the knee.

Blood sprayed on the pavers. He collapsed, moaning, as he tried to staunch the flow.

I apologized and jogged after Danielle, who was already halfway to the house.

She kicked open the front door.

Inside, we found John Kimberly, in his parlor, reclining in a gray armchair. He was sixty-five, maybe seventy. Unnaturally tan. His hair was close-cropped and white, and on his left cheek was a liver spot shaped like the state of Florida.

His hands were already up. “How did you find out?”

Danielle shook her head and raised her gun. “Where’s your stash?”

He looked from me to her.

“Better tell her,” I said. 

“Second floor,” he said, and he begged us to wait, but did we? What do you think?

Danielle charged up the stairs.

I drew my brand-new Beretta, which I had no intention of firing—but it did come with free bullets—and ushered Kimberly up after her.

The first flight of stairs led to a landing where the next flight ascended in the opposite direction to the upper floors of the tower. On the landing was a door. Danielle threw it open. And whistled.

Inside the doorway, the most beautiful sight, row after row of roll upon roll of Quilted Northern® Ultra Plush® 3-ply, the best of the best.

 She popped two rolls. Spit out the tubes. Then tossed me her cuffs. “Chain him up. I’ll get rid of the first responders.” She gathered an armload of the Ultra Plush®, and bounded down the stairway to get rid of the cops before the guard she had shot could talk.

It felt good that she trusted me with Kimberly’s stash, which would last for years, assuming we kept it for ourselves and immediate family. We were kindred spirits, Danielle and I. But that was the last time I ever saw her. By now, she must be dead.

As I filled up on Quilted Northern®, Kimberly confessed to the whole thing. And I mean the whole, entire, pandemic. Tissue paper was a profitable business, the most profitable segment of the Kimberly-Clark Corporation, which he grew from nothing. It raked in more than 18 billion a year. Most people would be happy with that. But not Kimberly. “Shareholders expect growth,” he explained, but from the way he bragged, it was obviously all about him.

Feeding the ever-growing world population was a huge problem, one for which Kimberly saw immense opportunity. Trees grow easily, in most places. Wood is nutritious and so dense it requires processing for human consumption, and in this processing lies a massive opportunity for profit. Only problem was persuading people to eat it.

Traditional advertising was expensive and unreliable, and in this case probably useless. Kimberly-Clark wasn’t the only corporation exploring how advances in genetic research, which used viruses to modify human DNA, could change what a person desired. The way of the future. Just a matter of time until traditional advertising went the way of the dinosaurs.

My mouth fell open. “COVID-19 was deliberate?”

“Exactly.” He held up the hand that wasn’t cuffed to the rail. “See what I’ve accomplished?”

I shook my head. “Thousands of people are dying everyday.”

Outside, it was full-on dark. The lights on the landing were out. In the light streaming up the stairway, the lower portion of Kimberly’s face glowed like bronze. As he frowned and tilted his head, malevolent shadows played across his face. “An unfortunate side effect,” he admitted, “But then every day 25,000 people die from hunger. Think about that. We’re increasing production. In just a matter of months we’ll meet the demand. So, in the long run, I’ll be saving lives.” His lip curled into a smile. “Some would even say I’m altruistic.”

I chuckled, bitterly. “Maybe, if you gave people a choice.”

“You think people can be trusted to choose? Look at the choices they make. Half the time they don’t even understand what they’re choosing, and it’s no wonder the way traditional ads use psychological manipulation, like associating dish detergent with sex—come on. Do you have any idea how many men can’t get it up anymore just because of what they’ve seen on TV? The virus method we developed is far more humane. You have to agree. History will agree.

“I’ve created a better way to live.”

The Ultra Plush® turned in my stomach. My new appetite was not only unnatural but engineered to turn a profit. I shook what remained of the roll. “Seriously? So, I suppose you’re on the paper diet, too?”

“Of course.”

This surprised me. “Then eat up.” I tossed the roll at him. 

He swatted it away. It unfurled as it bounced down the stairs. “That’s meant for wiping your anus. Now, we’re producing tissue paper designed to be eaten. If you care to escort me to the fourth floor, I have a plentiful supply on which we can dine.”

I have to admit I was curious. If anyone was eating the best of the best, it was John Kimberly, founder and CEO of Kimberly-Clark. I wanted to try this delicacy that he had hoarded for himself, but the thought of stairs made my legs feel heavy. Plus, he had this sneer on his face like he thought he had won.

So, I reached inside the doorway, grabbed a roll of Quilted Northern®, clomped over to Kimberly and shoved it in his face. “So, this is just for guests? If it was good enough for me and Danielle, then it’s good enough for you.”

He shook his head. The light from below raked the Florida-shaped spot on his cheek. 

I drew my brand-new Beretta and pointed it in his face. “Take a bite.”

He pressed his lips together.

“What’s wrong with it?” I asked.

“You think you can just come into my house and take what you want?”

My stomach roiled as I realized the real reason I was suddenly too tired to climb a flight of stairs. “You poisoned it.”

“No.” He grinned. “Well, not exactly. But you’ll regret what you’ve done. When you wake up, let’s just say you’ll find your appetite has changed.”

I staggered backwards. “What does that mean?”

He tilted his head. His face became a shadow. No intention of explaining.

So, I took a cue from Danielle’s playbook. I aimed my gun at his leg and pulled the trigger.

Evidently, I missed. Behind him, the window cracked. He had shielded his face with his free arm and as he withdrew it, there was that smirk, again, like he knew how the recoil had hurt my hand, how my ears were ringing so loud I was about to pass out. 

I lunged forward and cocked my left fist to punch him in the stomach. He lowered his arm to block the blow. As he did, I conked his head with the butt of my gun. He went down, his cuffed arm hanging from the handrail. 

Afraid he was dead, I felt around his leathery neck and found a vein. His pulse was strumming right along, just fine. So, I stuffed his mouth with the Quilted Northern® he was so determined not to eat.  

I ate a bite myself, hoping upon hope that it would relieve this heaviness in my limbs. But the Quilted Northern® was already beginning to taste undesirable. I attempted to ascend to the delicacy on the fourth floor. Stumbled up two steps. And into blackness. Something clattered on the stairs, the Beretta—I had dropped it—the thud of my own body collapsing like a sack of meat. I felt nothing. And then I was out…

When I awakened, outside the windows, the sky was a solid gray mass of cloud. My side ached from where I had fallen on the stairs and slept there all night. 

Kimberly was dead. Coagulated blood surrounded him. Still cuffed to the handrail, he had eaten his arm down to the bone. A failed attempt to gnaw himself free, I assumed incorrectly.

Now, dear readers, is where it gets worse.

As I type my fingers look more and more like delectable little sausages dancing on the keys. Taunting me to eat them.

I must eat my fingers.

No choice.