I offer my elbow, tap yours with mine, it means hello.
“OK, I’m going to bed.”
“OK, I might not see you.”
“No, I don’t think you will.”
He’s looking at his phone, says
“OK.” My wife Brook and I are staying the night at my parents’ place in Illinois. They will watch our dog Hugo for us. Early tomorrow we will drive back across the river to the St. Louis airport.
“Say please and thanks.”
“Don’t get excited.”
“I mean, don’t get upset with people. Just keep your comments to yourself.”
Alright, Dad, I’ll do that. It’s good advice really. Why not? I’ve got a lot to lose. As much as anybody.
Plenty of masks, eye contact, full flight, Brook next to me. Anee-Marie and Patrick are seated somewhere on the plane behind us. They’re longtime friends of ours, with whom we’ve done quite a bit of traveling. They were checking in at the desk just as Brook and I walked into Lambert International. We’re headed to Savannah through Atlanta. I’m glad they’ve never tried to get us to go on a cruise. A Supposedly Fun Thing, Held At Sea. My throat is a little sore. I sneezed five times in a row this morning, but that’s every morning. I don’t like sleep but I’ve become allergic to waking up. Or to coffee. Science could settle this but it’ll never get the chance.
Tagless bag. Economy cabin chatter. My wife’s popped her earbuds in, already angling for sleep. I only ever have head-fall-back-snap-forward-to-wake-up sleep on airplanes. But I sure can look out of one of these tiny windows and put pen to paper. Twenty minutes past sunrise. Early March in St. Louis. In like a lamb. Luggage tram. Oranges cones, airplane mode.
I have a habit of picking at the chap on my lips. This falls into the prohibited hands-to-face behavior class. I’m trying to be mindful, I’m trying to stop. I washed my hands well before boarding. If my hands were a steak they’d be well-done. But I looked at a grim trio of stand-bys, all in mouth-masks, three different kinds. They looked serious. Military? They knew something I didn’t know. It’s here, isn’t it? Buckle up, this plane begins to taxi.
Ascent into clouds. I can’t see where we’re going but that’s why we have a pilot. Pilot like a light in the night! Air strip, test kit, throw that tissue away. Hand on pen, pen to mouth as I ponder the next line. It’s being written across my lips. Only machines will read it.
Saturday morning. Sunshine, my wife pouring coffee in our rental flat, second floor Savannah. Anne-Marie is also awake but Patrick hasn’t emerged from their bedroom yet. Across the street from our rental is a Chase Bank branch that has captured our attention, if for no other reason than because it is what we see when we look out the window. Yesterday evening a team of four employees were hanging around inside, waiting until closing time so they could go out into the streets, or just go home. There didn’t seem to be any customers.
Overnight, initial cases of the novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, were reported in the states of Nevada, Maryland, Wisconsin, and New Jersey. It moves as if by air. We are the air. Cases in France top 400. Germany, 600. I put the pen down, Brook checks the news on her phone. She shakes her head. I raise my eyebrows in question. “Two deaths in Florida,” she says.
I go to the window and look out, down onto the street. Guy with a dog on his backpack, probably a chihuahua. Somehow it has purchase there. Guy picks a cup out of the trash, removes the lid to get a closer look, decides to pass, puts the cup back, moves along. Freegan? Perhaps, but not by choice.
Sunday morning. I went out into the street last night. Patrick and Anne-Marie were at a music concert held at a brewery. The place wasn’t far from our flat but I left without knowing exactly where the venue was located, and without carrying my phone. I guess I wanted a challenge. I wandered a little. When I realized I’d been walking in a circle for ten minutes I hailed a pedi-cab. It’s not the best ten dollars I’ve ever spent but I reached the destination.
I asked my driver if he had any grass.
“I try not to carry any while I’m working,” he said.
He had been hand-rolling a cig when I approached him, my eyeballs tinged with suds. The tobacco was Bugle brand.
“Any chance you could roll me one of those Bugles?”
“Sorry, man, I’ve only got enough left for one more cig.”
I tipped him an extra five bucks and we bade each other a good night. I was happy with myself for asking the three questions, the first being if he could get me to Service Brewing. It’s been years since I’ve taken a pedi-cab. Maybe not since I was a law student loose on the laissez-faire streets of downtown Austin, Texas on whatever night of the week it was we held our so-called “bar review.”
The air felt clean and clear and cool through my hair as we rounded one corner and then another, his legs powering us along.
Patrick and Anne-Marie had tickets for the show. I didn’t. So I sat at a table outside for twenty minutes hoping Patrick would emerge for a smoke himself. He never did. I think he’s in the midst of quitting, apparently with success. I am the rare smoker who can take it or leave it. In the last twelve months I’ve smoked twelve rough cigarettes. But sometimes I want one. After watching the crowd through the floor-to-ceiling windows fronting the brewery, more feeling the music than hearing it, I returned to the flat.
Average age of a person who has died from COVID-19? 80 years old. At-risk travelers are urged to avoid air travel and are warned bluntly not to board cruise ships. The news reveals that the coronavirus has found its way to St. Louis. A student studying abroad returned home carrying the pathogen. The student then attended a wedding at the Ritz-Carlton in Clayton, a short walk from my house. It’s loose. It’s here. This is not a drill. I assume I’ll be exposed eventually, maybe within six weeks. I could take better care of myself. Zinc supplements aren’t enough. But if I think I’m sick… What then? Go to Farm? Camp outside? I would not be able to see my parents. That I know for certain.
Monday morning. Overnight, chaos in the financial markets. Crude oil has crashed, falling 30 per cent. The OPEC cartel is officially dead, if it wasn’t already. Russia and Saudi Arabia have engaged in a price war. Natural gas trades at 1998 prices. Time machine. Dow Jones futures were limit down, set to open off some 1300 points. May you live in interesting times.
My family comes from stocks, or has done since it was my family, since my mom and dad were in charge of it. My dad’s license plate reads, “STOCKS.” But I learned first from him and then firsthand as I managed other people’s money for eight years, that these moments can appear in retrospect like opportunities. Not that they aren’t scary. I’m queasy. The stock market has gone up so much since the last crash a dozen years ago. A stern correction was bound to happen. As the saying goes, the market always does what it’s supposed to, just never when.
Otherwise, it’s a slow morning. We read, look at the news on our phones, shower, drink coffee. The world moves on around us. I ask Brook if it’s crazy for me to ask my mom to set a mask outside of their house for me to don while I collect Hugo tomorrow night. I worry about a day spent on planes, and in airports. I could unwitting a carrier be.
Patrick stands at the large marble-topped island in the middle of the main room of the flat. He is tinkering with a letter board that sat on the island when we first entered. It had an arrow on it pointing to a snack basket, with the phrase “WELCOME PLEASE ENJOY.” We’ve taken turns at rearranging the removable letters to come up with different arrangements of words using the same letters. My aim has been to produce only legitimate words, disallowing proper nouns. We discovered a drawer where a cache of surplus letters were dumped, taking out for our use only one luxury letter, a ‘T.’ With the ‘T’ I came up with “JAM OLEO SWEETY PENCE.”
I stepped out for a moment to call my former colleague, placing three orders. The market had been halted. Prices were unclear. The news is a vortex. I’m trying to think about something else. Like our trip out to Tybee Island yesterday. I wasn’t feeling one hundred per cent in the car as Patrick drove us out to the island, east of Savannah on the Georgia coast.
It had been years since I’d spent any time on a beach. I fell in love with the ocean again. The beach was expansive, panoramic, littered with shells and even a few jellyfish. The sky was pleasantly full of high, wispy clouds. It was low tide, our luck. The light reflected calmly off the riffles of ocean water that silently trickled their way back to the surf. There was a stiff, constant breeze but I had on layers and a good windbreaker. The air smelled softly pungent, a touch of sulfur, brackish. Up a little higher on the beach, away from the water, dry sand blew tenderly across the ground, whisked away in the wind. The landscape worked magic on me, buffeting my doldrum, lifting me over. I went beachcombing and collected several shells, among them empty oysters and clams and some others that—
My wife dashes out of our room dressed for the day, late of a shower.
Patrick says, “Girl, you look like me. I don’t dry my hair, either!”
It’s a joke; he doesn’t have much hair. She sticks her elbow out, adapting and happy to offer the new version of a high five. We are about to go for lunch.
As we sat down at Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room on our last full day in Savannah, the arrangement of food on the table drew attention. The number of items itself was only part of the story: sweet potatoes, cheesy potatoes, fried chicken, cornbread, corn, rutabaga, cole slaw, cukes, black-eyed peas, lima beans, stuffing, barbecued pork, cabbage, green beans, jambalaya, white rice, baked beans. All in porcelain bowls with serving spoons. This was a family-style meal. The way it works is that you stand in line outside the restaurant for a half an hour or so. When one of the tables inside opens up, seven to nine of the people standing in line take a spot at the open table. When you sit down, the food is hot and ready to go. You grab a bowl next to you and start loading your plate. If there’s something you want in a bowl across the table, you ask for it to be passed.
Anne-Marie didn’t initially sit down. She set her purse on her chair and went to wash her hands. Brook had her hand sanitizer out. I had mine out. The woman seated to my right asked to use one of the bottles. She and her husband had driven up from Miami, though they hail originally from Spain. They had planned to be in Japan this week but canceled that trip because of the outbreak. The other couple at our table was from Michigan, bringing the total at the table to eight.
I was conscious of the way I handled the bowls when passing or receiving them. But I also felt resignation. What’s done is done. Let’s just enjoy lunch, I thought. Reflecting back on the meal I’m wondering about the family-style concept in the age of corona. That restaurant is an institution. The original Mrs. Wilkes’s grand-daughter came to our table in greeting. Yet, with the way the news is trending overseas, the word ‘inevitable’ comes to mind. How do we stop going out to eat? How many traditions are we willing to concede? How many will we lose one way or another? I mean, I’m putting pen to paper on this trip not just because I’m a writer but with a mind to meeting an assignment for a travel writing class I’m taking at Washington University in St. Louis. My readers are my classmates. But I don’t know, as I sit here in Savannah, ready to go home, if my class will even convene later this month. Stanford has already gone online.
The food at Mrs Wilkes was delicious. Oh, collard greens, I forgot those. The fried chicken was as good as any I can remember. So good in fact that I could not help but lick the extra little bit of grease and crumb from my fingers.
Tuesday morning. We’re packed but not without bumps and bruises. Patrick and Anne-Marie both threw up earlier. They think perhaps the crab cakes they ate late last night when they went out for a bite had gone bad. Then Patrick caught the edge of a TV shelf with the dome of his head. I heard the collision, then the curses. He’s got a bandage on his head. We’re limping our way out of here.
The stock market is up, but not nearly commensurate to yesterday’s rout, the worst day on Wall Street in twelve years. Harvard has asked its students not to come back from Spring Break. Tuesdays are usually my night for travel writing class but we’re on Break this week. Now I’m wondering if that Break continues. I’ll keep writing this essay; I’ll finish it. But I’m not sure I’ll have any class to present it to. Things have gotten weird quickly.
After they came back from getting their late night snack, Patrick and Anne-Marie raided the drawer with the extra letters for the letterboard. Though he did not add it to the board, Patrick had arranged a phrase on the counter that I found apropos. In fact, I haven’t been able to get the phrase out of my head. It read, “COAL CLAMS ARE THE NEW STORM HERE.”
Learning how to live with each other? No, learning how to live without.
Ghost library, empty class, digital workshop. Loss, loss, zero—
I want to lash out. I imagine calling the university and asking for some of my money back. I didn’t sign up for an online course. In my fantasized exchange with some administrator I threaten to sue, to lead the class action myself!
But my emotion is misplaced, misdirected. I need to be magnanimous in this. Lots of other people are going to feel the brunt of this worse than I will. Maybe a lot worse. I need to empathize. I need to stay solid, calm, even. I’ll give thanks for using the last in-person class of the semester to strike up a conversation with a classmate with whom I have a surprising amount in common. I’ll give thanks for the feedback I’ve already gotten from Professor Sylvia who noticed I am sometimes maybe a little tentative with my language, probably. I just need to keep on writing and reading. Always, and forever, or never. Again.
Quiet highway, news reports of chaos at the airports. I’m headed by car to Farm, circa Iberia, Missouri. The middle of the state. For a night or two. To check on the place. To continue my work there.
No, it’s not my Farm. It belongs to Patrick and his brother. I’ve spent a lot of time there these last several years. Cast myself as its steward, forged a new identity there. And I don’t like the idea of the old house sitting there open, alone, unprotected. Still, I’m beset with worry that this 130-mile foray into rural America in the age of the novel coronavirus is unethical because it is not strictly essential. But other people are going to work. And I don’t believe I’m sick. On the other hand, I was in a busy airport five days ago.
Coronavirus dominates the news flow as I drive. The airports have gotten frenetic. New screening implemented. Long lines and outrage at O’Hare in Chicago, where my two siblings live. My wife and I spent yesterday morning in grocery stores. I’ve been a stockpiler in my time, for years I’ve kept an emergency kit.
I added to my stash in mid-February, when the virus had broken out in Wuhan, China. But I still feel like this outbreak caught me flat-footed. For me, the WTF moment landed with a scream three nights ago when an ominous trio of news reports erupted in hydra-tandem: the NBA had suspended its season, President Trump had restricted travel from Europe, and Tom Hanks and his wife tested positive for the virus in Australia. Until that trio of events lined up on my phone, the gravity of the moment did not grip me with its full force—pandemic! In my time as a human, as an American, I harken back to September the 11th, 2001. What else? The Cold War? Nah, it was too cold and I was too young.
This is oil embargo level. Put on a sweater. Also before my time. This is Vietnam, you’ve been drafted. Here’s your gun, get on the chopper. This is WWII. You’re going to Normandy, you’re headed to the assembly line. We’re all on rations. This is our war now.
In France, restaurants, cafés, and museums have closed. In the United Kingdom, over-70s are to isolate themselves. That will happen here. I don’t know when I’ll see my parents again. I imagine shopping for them, driving across the river to Illinois, leaving a pitiful bag of groceries on their doorstep. Add that to the list of heartbreakers. There is no sport. Baseball, the one constant through all the years? Not this year. Baseball on hold. Paused, delayed, postponed, suspended. NBA, NHL, PGA, soccer, the Kentucky Derby.
I snap out of my rage fugue when I see deer on a hillside, up on a bluff along interstate 44. What are the animals thinking? I’ve been wondering that, as I’ve stood in the back cubby of our kitchen, just looking out the window, staring absently at the birds we feed, the squirrels. Do they know? Do they sense something has changed?
I stopped off at the Lowe’s in Sullivan. I bought seeds, weed killer, and a test kit for analyzing drinking water. I’ll use it to test the well water that comes out of the tap at Farm. I used to think that the well water was good but then a couple times I drank it and felt nauseous. Either the water’s bad or I was feeling sick just because I was out there in the old farmhouse by myself, isolated, lonely, and afraid. I want to test the water to know for sure.
Continuing west on interstate 44. I thought I was done writing, the stop at Lowe’s having snapped my momentum, but I’ve detected an uptick in the number of military vehicles on the highway. Paranoid? It’s a Sunday. This could simply be weekend exercises by the Missouri National Guard. Or it could have something to do with Fort Leonard Wood, which isn’t too far from here, southwest of Rolla, in the direction I’m heading. But something tells me this is part of the new abnormal.
Monday morning. Packing up (again). I didn’t stay awake too long last night. I had a nice fire going on the hillside, in the area I’ve cleared. The highlight was when one of the locals came by, a guy by the name of Clifty. I’d spoken with him a couple of times before. Long ago, his family homesteaded some of the land right around here. We talked for a while about the history of the place, which I’ve recently begun to study.
The last thing we talked about was the coronavirus. He’s sixty-seven, he told me. I could be a carrier. Or he could. I could’ve gotten him sick. Him, me. We didn’t shake hands. They sent him to Vietnam, seventeen years old. He asked me, rhetorically, “That’s pretty young, don’t you think?”
On the way back to St. Louis I stopped at a couple of rural grocery stores to stock up on food and supplies without the anxiety and edginess I encountered in (and brought with me into) my hometown grocery. The things I bought: a butternut squash, carrots, mushrooms, evaporated milk, a red onion, a pound-and-three-quarters of ground chuck, rum, cough medicine, sore throat lozenges, Coca Cola, salt, two boxes of cornbread mix, a large can of diced tomatoes, tomato paste, frozen spinach, tortillas, rice, butter, acetaminophen, yeast, flour, black beans.
Home again. A trip into the country helped. The yellow breast of a meadowlark as it sang on a roadside wire. The flickering of my hillside fire, as it continued to burn even after I’d gone into the house. Waking up into a quiet that only I could break.
But the reality here is stark. Listening to the news as I drove back was self-administered blunt trauma. Gatherings now limited to ten people. Restaurants closed except for takeout and delivery. Forget about baseball anytime soon. The stock market’s fallen below where it was when I left my investments job three years ago. I just want to cry my eyes out in all directions. I don’t know where to start. To sleep is the only escape, if the dreams are clean.
Who among us doesn’t want to bawl? Where was all this sadness lurking? I haven’t felt this sad since I unwittingly watched our sweet little rescue dog June die of bee-sting shock before my eyes. She’s gonna be fine, I told my wife. The virus will go away when the weather warms up, our President said. I am stunned and paralyzed as our system of living unravels, or as we dismantle it, brick-by-brick. Time, oh, time. Carry me through.
There was a stank in the downstairs bathroom when I returned from Farm. I thought it was the toilet not having been flushed from before I left. But then I saw that atop the toilet tank still sat the plastic bag of shells I had collected from the Georgia coast, from when I was blissfully combing the beach on Tybee Island last week. I picked up the bag and took a whiff. No doubt this was the source. I had been meaning to rinse them all off. Now I have finally gotten around to doing it.
There was one shell that stood out. The prettiest, most complete shell I had found that day. It’s what’s called a lettered olive. Perfectly smooth and glossy with a couple of dark hazy bands of brown set against a background of sandy tan and off-white. It’s sharp at the top, the point where the twisting began, as the shell formed itself through a series of circular folds, three or four generations of them. Rinsing all of the shells and taking a closer look at each, I could see that something else was special about the olive. It was undeniable. Something was living in there. Or had been. As recently as a week ago.
—IL/MO/GA, March 4-16, 2020