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Accidental visitors

For years now I’ve kept a “Visitors Log,” a notebook where I write a few lines about what occurs when anyone comes over: family and friends, delivery drivers and septic pumpers, even close-to-the-house anglers, critters in my basement and uncommon birds at my feeder. Some of our most memorable fall into the category of “accidental visitors,” a spontaneity that COVID-19 took away from all of us, at least for awhile.

Here are some of my favorites from the past five years.

Lost pizza boy: One bitter March afternoon a sedan bumps down our long snowy driveway. My husband goes out to talk to the teen through his rolled down window: “Wrong house.” The kid waves and turns his car around for his ascent up the driveway. Soon he backs down. He can’t make it up the icy stretches.

He calls the pizza joint; he’s on his own. He calls his parents; Dad will get here after work. Bruce coaxes the coat-less kid into our house. He makes him a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and sets out a glass of milk. They chat for over an hour. The kid’s on spring break from college, so he’s back home in Eau Claire to pick up some hours. Turns out he went to high school with Bruce’s daughter. Finally Dad shows up in his pick-up truck and tows his son up the drive.

When I get home, Bruce tells me the story: our accidental guest’s red hair and freckles, how he shivered in just a T-shirt. Then the punchline, one we don’t yet know Bruce will recount for many years to come: “He didn’t even offer me the pizza.”

My brother’s neighbor’s brother: One Monday in late August our Chippewa Herald, which comes via U.S. mail, is delivered to Lorna’s mother’s house up on Highway OO. Lorna has been my brother’s neighbor on 112th Street in Chippewa Falls since the 1980s. If you drew a straight line through the village of Lake Hallie, across the lake, you’d connect that 112th Street with the one Bruce and I live on about four miles away. Her out-of-town brother doesn’t know this when he sets off from his mother’s place. He tells me how eventually GPS got him to my door. He hands over our lost paper and takes a longing look toward the lake. “The last time I was on this property I was a kid,” he says, “your house was a bait shop. I used to fish right over there.”

Gun delivery guy: We’re having a new furnace put in by Bud from Hovland’s. For one hour of the workday, neither Bruce nor I can be home. During that time, a guy shows up to drop something off. Bud tells him, “The husband just left, and the wife should be home soon.” Good enough. He leaves the package in our basement. The next day the same dude shows up at our door and tells Bruce, “I thought Dave and Barbie lived here. I left a gun in your basement.” Bruce invites him in, and they go down to find the package tucked under our bookshelf. We’d never even noticed it.

Bruce jokes to the man with the misplaced gun: “Now if only Hovland’s would bill our neighbors.”

Weather balloon boys: One Memorial Day weekend morning I watch a pink object bobbing on the surface of Lake Hallie. Is it a kid’s tackle box or a collapsed innertube or some sort of bag? I keep an eye on it because eventually the thing may float past our dock, and I will go out with my net and nab it. I am perpetually looking for a suitcase full of money. “It could happen,” I tell Bruce, each time I pull some slimy gem from the lake.

An hour later two teenage boys knock on our door and explain they tracked their weather balloon to this area. I step outside and lead them to the lake. I point. “Is that it?”

One asks if they can launch their inflatable raft from our dock. The more outgoing kid, Holden, says, “We were afraid to drive down here when we saw your ‘private’ sign.”

I can’t stop looking at the huge scar across his throat, like a nightcrawler of raised flesh. I say, “You could just use my kayak to fish it out.” I take them down to our dock.

While Holden paddles out to retrieve the weather balloon, his buddy Isaac tells me this is their 11th-grade science project. “Do you know where Woodbury is?” he asks. “We live there.” He says the last time they shot up their weather balloon, it landed in some stubbled field. When they knocked at a nearby farmhouse, a guy came to the door with a shotgun and asked them, “What the hell do you want?”

I take their picture with the reclaimed weather balloon and promise to email the photo. “That’ll be great for our assignment. My address is Isaac Armand.” he says. “Armand is my middle name.”

Holden says to Isaac, “I never knew that. Armand, huh?” They drove 60 minutes into Wisconsin to discover this tidbit and a bigger lesson: not all rural strangers are armed.

Wrong day dinner guests: One early spring Friday evening a couple walks toward our house with a bottle of wine and a bowlful of salad. John and Sharon. I greet them outside. It takes only a few moments for me to realize they’re here for dinner, then a few more for Sharon to realize her husband confused my husband’s invitation: next Tuesday for grilled brats. Sharon scolds John about his mix-up as I sweet-talk them inside for a drink. Only one, both agree a bit awkwardly, because they’re leaving.

I clear a spot at the counter and tell them they’re the kind of friends we wouldn’t need to clean our house for anyway. “I was at my dad’s all day,” I say. “He’s still hanging on.”

Last week John’s brother died suddenly. He tells us the details. We have another drink. Soon we’re laughing and sharing family stories.

I dig out tuna salad and start to make sandwiches. “Don’t even —” Sharon protests. I wave her way with my spatula. She grabs her bowl from the fridge. I put out plates.

Sharon tells us that when their kids were little they called these “tuna toasties,” perhaps every good Catholic’s Friday night comfort food. Each family has a different recipe: some variation of canned fish, mayo, spices, and often secret ingredients — mine are lime and cilantro pesto.

John bites into my tuna melt. His face shows how much he likes it. Finally he says in Sharon’s direction, “Maybe I just wished I could come here tonight.”

The public and her employer have rallied around 16-year-old Lily Stegemann of La Crosse since she was the target of racist comments recently by a customer at Stockholm Pie & General Store in the Pepin County village of Stockholm.

States retreat as virus cases soar

AUSTIN, Texas — Texas and Florida reversed course and clamped down on bars again Friday in the nation’s biggest retreat yet as the number of confirmed coronavirus infections per day in the U.S. surged to an all-time high of 40,000.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott ordered all bars closed, while Florida banned alcohol at such establishments. The two states joined the small but growing list of those that are either backtracking or putting any further reopenings of their economies on hold because of a comeback by the virus, mostly in the South and West.

Health experts have said a disturbingly large number of cases are being seen among young people who are going out again, often without wearing masks or observing other social-distancing rules.

“It is clear that the rise in cases is largely driven by certain types of activities, including Texans congregating in bars,” Abbott said.

Abbott had pursued up to now one of the most aggressive reopening schedules of any governor. The Republican not only resisted calls to order the wearing of masks but also refused until last week to let local governments take such measures.

“The doctors told us at the time, and told anyone who would listen, this will be a disaster. And it has been,” said Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, a Democrat who is the county’s top official. “Once again, the governor is slow to act. He is now being forced to do the things that we’ve been demanding that he do for the last month and a half.”

Stocks fell sharply on Wall Street again over the surging case numbers. The Dow Jones Industrial Average shed 730 points, or nearly 3%.

Texas reported more than 17,000 new cases in the past three days, with a record high of nearly 6,000 on Thursday. In Florida, under GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis, the agency that regulates bars acted after the daily number of new cases neared 9,000, almost doubling the record set just two days earlier.

Colleen Corbett, a 30-year-old bartender at two places in Tampa, said that she was disappointed and worried about being unemployed again but that the restrictions are the right move. Most customers, she said, were not wearing masks.

“It was like they forgot there was a pandemic or just stopped caring,” she said.

A number of the hardest-hit states, including Arizona and Arkansas, have Republican governors who have resisted mask-wearing requirements and have largely echoed President Donald Trump’s desire to reopen the economy quickly amid warnings the virus could come storming back.

The White House coronavirus task force, led by Vice President Pence, held its first briefing in nearly two months, and Pence gave assurances that the U.S. is “in a much better place” than it was two months ago.

He said the country has more medical supplies on hand, a smaller share of patients are being hospitalized, and deaths are much lower than they were in the spring.

The count of new confirmed infections, provided by Johns Hopkins University, eclipsed the previous high of 36,400, set on April 24, during one of the deadliest stretches. Newly reported cases per day have risen on average about 60 percent over the past two weeks, according to an Associated Press analysis.

While the rise partly reflects expanded testing, experts say there is ample evidence the scourge is making a comeback, including rising deaths and hospitalizations in parts of the country and higher percentages of tests coming back positive for the virus.

At the task force briefing, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, urged people to mind their responsibility to others: “A risk for you is not just isolated to you.”

Deaths from the coronavirus in the U.S. are running at about 600 per day, down from a peak of around 2,200 in mid-April. Some experts have expressed doubt that deaths will return to that level, because of advances in treatment and prevention and because younger adults are more likely than older ones to survive.

The virus is blamed for about 125,000 deaths and 2.4 million confirmed infections nationwide, by Johns Hopkins’ count. But health officials believe the true number of infections is about 10 times higher. Worldwide, the virus has claimed close to a half-million lives, according to Johns Hopkins.

Louisiana reported its second one-day spike of more than 1,300 cases his week. The increasing numbers led Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards this week to suspend further easing of restrictions. Republican Gov. Doug Ducey did the same in Arizona, which has been seeing more than 3,000 cases a day. And Nevada’s governor ordered the wearing of face masks in Las Vegas casinos and other public places.

In addition to closing bars again, Abbott scaled back restaurant capacity in Texas, shut down rafting operations and said any outdoor gatherings of more than 100 people will need approval from the local government.

DeSantis has been lifting restrictions more slowly than a task force recommended, but has allowed theme parks to reopen, encouraged professional sports to come to Florida and pushed for the GOP convention to be held in the Sunshine State.

In a reversal of fortune, New York said it is offering equipment and other help to Arizona, Texas and Florida, noting that other states came to New York’s aid when it was in the throes of the deadliest outbreak in the nation this spring.

“We will never forget that graciousness, and we will repay it any way we can,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said.