art by ShotHot Design
Say Zucchini, and Mean It
by Peter M Ball
That summer we used to go searching for the lovesick. Someone'd pick a suburb and we'd bus it out there, a gaggle of us watching the suburbs slip by, killing time. Then we'd split up and go searching, trying to find the weirdest case in the weirdest location. That summer you'd find them everywhere. They'd started calling it an epidemic on the news, and the government was paying a bounty to good Samaritans who called a new case in.
That wasn't why we did it. The money was nice, sure, but we were out there chasing a good story. The whole thing started because Alice found this guy sitting under a jacaranda, back before we knew what was happening. He sat there in his wedding suit, purple flowers covering his head and shoulders like dandruff. Alice said his eyes were dead but his jaw kept working, repeating the same words over and over like a mantra: "I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you." He'd been left there by his wife, abandoned in the park, when the sickness hit in the middle of the ceremony. No one knew why she left him. No one knew what was wrong with him.
We used to love hearing that story, before words like epidemic were thrown around. For a long time we were obsessed with finding one of our own, something even better.
I didn't love Alice, but I wanted to love her. There was something reckless about being in love after seeing the lovesick, and I wanted in. "I love you" was dangerous, the last real taboo we had. Some people embraced it despite the danger. With three simple words you could set yourself free.
Malcolm went away in the second year of the epidemic. Alice and I shared the flat after Malcolm left. We'd spend our afternoons on the couch, Alice strumming bar chords on the acoustic guitar Malcolm's family left behind when they packed up his stuff and had him committed. We didn't have a television, so we'd drink a lot, sing, let our voices boom out against the walls.
On Tuesdays we walked down to the hospital and sat by Malcolm's bed. Alice wore black and sang to him, soft and sweet. I'd stand around and watch, pretending I was somewhere else. The entire ward pulsed with the repetition. A hundred people, maybe more, the same words echoing, over and over: "I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you."
Sitting there, listening, I realized what epidemic really meant. I recognized it as more than a word they used on the telly.
I hated the ward. It smelt like bleach. Visitors left with tears in their eyes.