It was an unseasonably warm morning, t-shirt weather on the back porch. The sky was gray with threatening dark clouds on the southern horizon. He had a tooth going bad and he needed to get to the dentist, but he was afraid of going into the office. The virus could be there. It was such a nice morning to be so hellish.
He wished that he could wake up and it would all be gone like the mother of all bad dreams. Wished… he imagined the virus was everywhere – on the mail, the groceries and his shoes. He picked up his pen,
The shit is probably everywhere. If it’s in a Podunk town in Iran, it’s probably here. Quarantine is a myth. You can’t really hide from it, and still we must. It’s the best way to take care of each other, even if we all go bugnutz crazy. The liquor store is deemed an essential service so Robert, Rich and Dave sit up at the store getting exposed to everyone who needs to get loaded. They are brave or foolish, but they have bills to pay. If the governor closed the liquor stores there would be riots.
Thank God I retired. Thank God I don’t have to worry about money. Thank God I have a nice house to hole up in. Thank God I don’t have the shit. Yet?
They say that the shit doesn’t just kill you. It’s a terrifying smothering sensation because your lungs can’t take in oxygen, and they have to induce a coma with drugs to prevent you from panicking and fighting for breath… for days. I am fucking terrified.
He thought about praying but the words wouldn’t come, except for smart-assed crap like, “I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you didn’t send this…” No, things are bad enough without messing with God.
The day passed like an old lady on a walker, painful and slow. He welcomed the darkness. It hid the aching world. In the dark, he didn’t have to see so much. The cat came in wanting to be fed, and he did it. Feeding her was one of his pleasures. He made sure he always had the best food for her. She responded by sitting respectfully on the end table by his bed until he awakened in the morning. Sometimes she curled up next to him, as if somehow he mattered in her cat world. He picked up his pen,
What I’ve learned in this is that our souls are starving. We lack the strength to be human. We lack the strength to be moral, to be kind. Our souls are starving – our lives are hollow. We take all the toilet paper so the old ladies can’t get any. How lame is that?
He stepped out on the porch to smoke. The air was fitful and too warm for this time of year. There were tornadoes working their way up the river. It could hit here or it could miss. Up in Indiana the weather was really rowdy. He set his face into the wind. He wasn’t concerned. The doctor had given him the little white pill. He called it “the settle the fuck down pill.” It was so strong that he cut them in half. “The settle the fuck down” pill would cure what ails you. It was the express lane to oblivion.
Thunder rippled through the air. Lightning bloomed in deadly blossoms. The stormy fresh air lifted his hair up. The storm was the metaphor of the disconnect between internal and external reality. It was fearsome, deadly and threatening somewhere out there in the dark, but it wasn’t here at least right this moment. He loved the cool storm wind as it whipped between the houses.
Morning was radiant white clouds racing across a pure blue sky driven by an urgent wind. The night had been a series of leg cramps that woke him up yelling. His legs still ached. The wind tore at everything and cardboard boxes tumbled down the alley. Coffee, Thank you, God, for coffee. Now, can we work on the virus? He cradled the cup in his hands to warm his fingers.
The daytime passed. Night fell.
There were boys racing motorcycles out on the expressway. He could hear them winding up to the redline and shifting gears. They weren’t worried about the virus. Their bikes would kill them. Somehow they knew this but didn’t seem to care.
The evangelicals huddled together in their churches like lemmings. They believed all kinds of phony bullshit. They would die like flies. There’s a price to be paid for bad theology.
Say a prayer for the nurses. Say a prayer for the checkers at the grocery. Say a prayer for the truckers jammed together at Love’s. Say a prayer for those who die alone. Dear God.
He picked up his pen,
Another month. Can I do another month of this? Probably not. I have a fast car. I can outrun the virus with my car, or maybe not. I want to believe in a world ruled by a benign and loving God, but I just don’t see it. This is all just too hard to work. I got nothing against this, helpless as a kitten. I don’t like that feeling. I’m usually the guy who slays the dragon. I don’t do kitten well.
There are boys racing motorcycles out on the expressway… dumbasses. There are better ways to die. My mom died peacefully in her sleep. They had put her in the hospital for pulmonary hypertension. My sister called me. Mom spent the evening talking on the phone with her many friends. In the morning she was gone. Mom always knew how to do things. Be like Mom. You could do a lot worse. Worse, like the virus, so much worse. Stay home. Love us enough to stay home.
Cool but not cold morning with gray overcast. Robins patrol the back yard. The cat has fallen asleep. A day will come when he will have to leave the house and it will be an act of desperate faith. It will be a roll of the dice that he can outmaneuver the virus.
He liked to watch the news in the morning but the dismal drumbeat of deaths and new infections became oppressive. He thought about music or podcasts but there was nothing he really wanted to hear except “it’s over.”
His family had moved around a lot when he was a kid – eighteen towns before he was twenty one. He had learned to adjust to social isolation a long time ago. With every move came the time of loneliness, before friends were made, and the loneliness simply had to be endured until a new crop of friends was made, that is until another move and the cycle began again. He had learned that. He knew every turn. He had never been told he needed to stay in his house until Hell froze over. That was new and unwelcome. He liked walking. He liked nature. He liked driving his car. He liked going to restaurants and baseball games.
The thought occurred that a hundred thousand people were on ventilators at the moment and he was grieving over the loss of baseball games. The thought made him feel like the spoiled, entitled baby that he was. He picked up his pen,
I worked really hard to be a spoiled, entitled baby. I worked hard – twenty years of schooling and forty years of pounding the bricks. I paid, dammit, I paid. Nobody was going to give me anything. I was a cute, smart white boy. I was on my own. Yeah, the world was my oyster, but you can’t fuck up in that position and I didn’t. I nailed it. The money gets deposited in my account. I don’t even have to go to the bank. I scored. Having a plan pays off.
But now I feel guilty because most people don’t have what I have. I’m not worried about the mortgage or the car payment. They’re taken care of. I can buy all the groceries and whiskey I can carry. Most people don’t have that. If I go into the hospital, I have three different ways to pay for it. I set myself up well – I don’t mean to brag; it’s just a fact. Most people aren’t the chess player I was. Lots of people are sweating the next meal for their children. I give my children money and forget about it.
I have a nice house. It’s a modest abode, but comfy. It has plenty of room for my books and toys. The Wi-Fi is awesome. I don’t have to leave. I don’t have to go out and deal with the diseased crowd. Rich, and Robert, and Dave at the liquor store do. Bruce and Mark at the grocery do. They have to take risks I don’t have to take. It doesn’t seem fair.
The day was bright and sunny, a bit cold. He had to heat up the stove a couple of times to warm the house. The news was grim as hell: 100K to 200K people would die even if we did everything right, which of course wasn’t happening by a long shot. For him, it was a good day with good energy. He showered and shaved and cleaned up the kitchen. He touched base on all of his social media platforms and everyone who needed a message got a message. He wished he could call his mom and check on her, but she had been dead for six years. It would be nice to talk to you about now, Mom.
From the news and online services he got the impression that people were totally freaked out. The country was drifting rudderless with a maniac at the helm. (Did it occur to anyone that this might be a problem?) A vicious, invisible killer stalked young and old alike. The politicians seemed to care only about how much money they could make off of the pandemic. Churches were going psycho. He tapped at the keys of his laptop and all of it seemed very far away.
He walked outside and looked up at the night sky hoping to catch a glimpse of the Angel of Death as it flitted around like a noxious bug, but it was only the night. Perhaps the angel was in New Orleans or Ft. Lauderdale.
Darkness flowed around the houses. He was on the back porch in just a t-shirt and jeans, plenty warm. The cat prowled the alley as she always does after dark. Nothing else was normal. He tried to contain his contempt as he looked into the empty sky.
If there was going to be a Rapture, I’m pretty sure I missed it at this point. It feels like I’m on my own again, but I know that game pretty well – it’s the way I felt when Daddy died. The world became a less certain place. Like Joni said, “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.” Everything is gone right now; everything is ghosted.
He was afraid of everyone. He didn’t want anyone to even talk or breathe on him. He didn’t want anyone close. He didn’t want the virus. He hadn’t lived his life that way. He liked touch and intimacy. He liked hugs and the caress of skin. He liked sex. He loved the sensuality of being human. All of that was verboten now.
As the days had passed, he had slipped more and more into his inner world. Poetry and drawings came easily; talking to other people didn’t. The lovely thing about the inner world is that it gave him the luxury of not being in the outer world for a while. His dreams made more of a narrative and he remembered them better. His feelings were closer to the surface and he cried easily.
This will be grief like The Depression, the heavy, scarring grief that is handed down for generations after it happens, but there will never be a romance about this one like “Grapes of Wrath” because dying in a bed doesn’t make for great video. It will be like Grandma Johnson dying of polio in 1936 and the family burning her bed in the front yard. She didn’t have a funeral. No one came near.
You never escape that stuff. I’m still thinking about it and I wasn’t even there.
My son came over with some ribs and we smoked them over charcoal and apple wood all day. We drank beers and played chess. He beat me and that pissed me off, but somehow, when it’s your own kid, it’s OK. Nobody else gets to beat me at chess.
God, we are so fucked up. God, do you hear us down here? Do you care? Check in sometime and let us know you’re still breathing, because I can’t tell right now.
Do you remember me? Do you recall? I’m one of those guys who went to bat for you a long time ago. I know that’s not a big thing, but for my life, it was important. Do you hear my mind screaming?
“All your weight, it falls on me, falls on me… It brings me down…” What should I tell them? Give me a sign – it couldn’t be that hard.
I broke the bread. I spilled the wine. I said the holy words. Does that mean nothing?
The night was simply perfect. He propped open the back door to let the night air flood the house with its freshness. The cat thought that was pretty cool. She could run in and out without waiting for him to open the door. The Pain had taken the day off and he felt good.
The split-frame vision broke into his mind again: how beautiful and sensual the world immediately around him was, and yet it hid, just beyond the reach of vision, something sinister and deadly. It was like the knight playing chess with death in that old Bergman movie. How long could he play? Would he make a mistake? Only his son could beat him at chess… He said it this time like a mantra.