Chapter 10 Preview of COVlD-1984, The Musical

In this chapter, Winston and Julia retreat to the locus amoenus of Winston’s family farm in upstate New York. Nellie, the old lady next door, stops by for a visit.

Need to catch up? Go to Chapter One

Covid-1984, The Musical

CHAPTER TEN

Julia was coming to my farm for a visit. In anticipation of her arrival, I was having fences repaired, poison ivy removed, the grass in the gravel driveway vinegared and raked up, and thistles in yonder pastures dug out by the roots. Julia was coming to visit, in defiant violation of her family “pod” rules that her husband’s lawyer made her sign. She was not bringing her daughter Honoré “this” time, she had said, which implied she planned to bring her at some point.

For the time being, however, she was still so paranoid of being caught cohabiting with a potential virus vector, that she insisted that I not pick her up at the train station; she was to do the twenty-minute walk to the farm on her own. When last we parted at the library on Friday, she made me write the directions on paper than text them, which I did.

From Grand Central take the Harlem Valley line to Wassaic. Walk north on the rail trail then exit left when you see the graveyard and climb the hill toward the ramshackle Tudor house.  I will be in the garden waiting for you.

I was gardening under my cinematic imagination, again seeing myself in her eyes. After harvesting the last of the carrots, I was walking to the house carrying a bundle of orange and purple roots, a farmer’s bouquet, when Julia came skipping (yes, literally skipping like a child) down the driveway toward me.  She didn’t slow her pace until she was up against my chest, arms around me. Then she took the carrots in her arms like they were a precious offering. “This is heaven,” she said, “heaven.”

“On Earth,” I added.

Julia turned left and right and surveyed the land. I took her canvas overnight bag from her. It was unexpectedly heavy.

Booz waved from the fence line. Julia waved back.

“What did you tell him?” I asked.

“I made something up,” she said.

Pretending not to care about her reticence, I offered, “Let me show you around.” We followed the sheep trail across the pasture and I pointed out the barns and the gardens and took her down to a little stream in the boggy low section. “I’m having a lot of work done. These guys need the money,” I nodded toward Booz who was trying to pull up a rotten fence post. It suddenly popped out like a bad tooth, and he stumbled backward with it in his arms. “A lot of people still haven’t gotten back to work since the lockdown.”

“How are you paying them on your Octopus salary?”

“I’m not, exactly. It’s a long story. Three years ago, my mother sold all her stocks and bought ten abandoned Victorians in town.  She couldn’t stand to watch architectural treasures sagging to the ground and disappearing in a pile of rot.”

“I noticed some lovely old houses on the way up here.”

“She had new new metal roofs installed and the electrical systems updated, and then owner-financed them to new buyers.  Her income went down, but she improved her standing in the community, which was priceless.”

“Good for her,” Julia said.

“I’ll tell you about my mother’s awkward relationship with the locals later.  Here comes Booz. He and his wife bought one of the houses.” I lowered my voice as Booz approached, “Now there’s the little problem that four of these new home owners, who still owe my mother (now me) quite a lot, were under house arrest for quite a while and couldn’t go fixing people’s plumbing”—Booz had arrived, grinning at Julia. He removed his hat and held it against his chest as if he were listening to the national anthem—“or cleaning their carpets or serving them food or massaging their backs or whatever.”

“He’s trying to get us involved in an alternative scheme,” said Booz perceiving what I was telling Julia about.

“Is he?” said Julia.  “Hi, I’m Julia. I work with Winston.”

“Oh, I know all about you,” said Booz. “Call me Booz. That’s my last name, not my habit.”

“Dutch?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

I continued, “They are working off the mortgage payment by helping me around here. But if they do want to pay in cash, I will be spending it only at the local thrift shop, the local general store, tag sales. I’m trying to convince all my neighbors to keep their dollars circulating locally. During the Great Lockdown no one had any choice but to send their money like burnt offerings up to the Great Owners at the top.”

From the valley we could see Nellie and Betty’s house further below. The ladies were in their garden, wearing bright blue masks, looking at us. “That’s nosey Nellie and Betty,” I said, as Nellie started cutting across her lawn toward us. “When you passed them on your way up they must have noticed you.”   

Booz added, “We call them citiots.  As soon as they move into town and have a look around, they start telling us all the things were doing wrong and try to save us.” Booz paused and looked meaningfully at me. “Gertrude, that’s Winston’s mother, was one.”

“I haven’t filled Julia in yet,” I said. “I will.  Anyway Betty ran for town supervisor and won.”

“Only 200 or so people showed up to vote and she won by like 13 votes,” said Booz.

“The old coot she was opposing had run unchallenged for four terms and had recently been caught raising taxes.  Her name is Betty Davis,” I explained to Julia, “the name sounded really familiar.”

“Many of us were surprised to hear the next day we had elected a lesbian from the city to run our town,” said Booz. 

“Of course, everyone has to point out that she is a lesbian. They say, the town supervisor, she’s a lesbian you know, she is proposing to rebuilding the highway department garage.  The lesbian town supervisor is requesting bids for snow removal, etc., etc.”

“Then she hired a drag queen for story hour at the library,” said Booz. “A lot of us took exception to that.” 

“Gertrude didn’t tell me about that!” I said. 

“Well you went through your own trans phase, so she probably figured it would be indelicate to bring it up.”

“What’s this?” asked Julia. 

I explained, “When I was a kid a crossdressing was still funny. I dressed up in my mother’s clothes to spy on a town meeting that was being held about me. They were trying to decide whether or not I was a 9/11 truth terrorist.” 

Julia said nothing.

“So, Winston, anyway, have you been in touch with your lesbian neighbors since you got back?”

“I saw Nellie briefly on the rail trail the day after I came back.”

“She and her wife or husband whatever they call that, have been holed up like its Ebola. They order food from me now. Never would deign to eat at my place before Covid.  I guess theren’t too many options these days, what with the city place closed down for good.”

“Because of Covid?” asked Julia.

“It’s all Covid, even if it’s not Covid. You get what I mean. Anyways, our lesbian town supervisor and her girlfriend, or husband or what ever they call it—“

“Probably just ‘wife,’” suggested Julia.

“Don’t be so sure. You might get chewed out,” said Booz. “Anyway, they would drive up in their Vulva all masked up and gloved up.”

“Volvo?” I asked.

“Did I say Volvo? I meant Vulva.”  Booz waited. “What? You think I’m not capable of making puns. It’s the lowest form of humor, after all. Anyway, I would have to throw their food order through their car window.” 

Nellie was getting closer.  We waved guiltily.

“From how far off?” I asked.

“Like about fifteen feet.”

“Seriously?”

“Yeah,” Booz demonstrates how he threw the food at Nellie’s car. He backed up about three feet and pretended to toss something at Nellie. Nellie, who was by then about a hundred feet off, pretended to catch his imaginary food ball. “We used to call them maiden aunts when I was a kid,” reflected Booz, giving Nellie a thumbs up.

“What?” asked Julia.

“Lesbos.”

“Oh, right. We’re still talking about the sex life of my seventy-something neighbors,” I said softly, although Nellie was still a long way off.

“Yeah, well I don’t try to picture it or anything,” whispered Booz.

“Booz, please,” I said.

“Hey, it ain’t me. They call attention to it and all.”

Nellie has reached the welded wire fence between our properties and struggled with an old gate that hadn’t been used ever since they fell out of friendship with Gertrude.

I said to Julia, “My mom told me that Nellie asked her to put campaign signs in her yard for the last election. She told them she didn’t vote in national elections and wasn’t a member of any party.  They came to despise her, even more vehemently than they did the orange man, if you can believe that.”

Nellie had made it through the gate and was approaching us. “So sorry about your mom, Winston,” she shouted.  “Gertrude was a gem.”

I starred at Nellie without changing my expression. 

Nellie came to stand ten feet from us on the other side of the creek. She pointed to her mask, explaining, “We have to be careful due to our age.” 

Booz gestured at Nellie. “Julia, this is the First Lady of the Lesbian Town Supervisor” boasted Booz. “First in the county, right Nell?”

“Stop making a big deal out of it, Booz,” said Nellie. “I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but I notice you have a guest, Winston.”

Julia introduced herself.

Nellie ignored her, “With everyone traveling around all the time, we will never contain this virus.”

“I apologize, Nellie,” I said. “She escaped from her pod. I will keep her locked in a closet. Don’t worry. I’ve got this completely under control.”

“Nothing personal,” said Nellie. “We all need to follow the CDC orders.” 

“What if I gave CDC recommendations careful consideration and decided against them?” asked my dear brave Julia.

Nellie looked over Julia, and must have decided that her muscle tone and short skirt indicated a lack of intellectual sophistication and responded accordingly.  “This isn’t about you,” she snapped, “And while yes everyone should be encouraged to think critically, it’s become pretty obvious that most people are not properly equipped to understand and judge the merits of complex scientific studies on their own. Especially considering a majority of people in this country,” she glanced at Booz, “don’t even seem to understand that basic words like ‘theory’ and ‘research’ mean entirely different things to scientists as they do to laypeople…”

Laypeople was rather appropriate for the context, I thought.  Julia shifted her bundle of carrots, put her hand on her hip and leveled her gaze at Nellie.

Nellie continued, lightening her tone a bit, “…Heck most Americans can barely understand fractions, so I highly doubt they can properly compare and interpret the statistical significance of different study results or judge the validity of different sample sizes.”

Looking at me, Julia pointed at Nellie. “Is she real?”

“I taught public health at Vassar for thirty years,” Nellie retorted.  “Experts are considered trustworthy sources of information for a reason. We actually have the toolset necessary to digest information relating to our fields of expertise that we acquired from literal decades of study. Everyday people just can’t acquire that toolset from a few afternoons on the internet. Even if they can understand the words they’re reading, they just don’t have the experience to put it all in context.”

“Everyday people?” inquired Booz.  “What do you mean by that? Are there some people who don’t exist everyday?”

“Not to change the subject, but,” said Nellie, changing the subject, “I didn’t come over to lecture you. Betty wanted me to let you know about some town business. Felix O’Brien the Fintech billionaire bought a hundred acres behind your house, Booz, and Betty and I..”

I was shocked. “Wait. Felix O’Brien bought property here?”

Booz interjected, “There’s a whole bunch of billionaires in the valley now. It’s like mayfly swarm. They just showed up out of nowhere. I don’t care, if it lowers my taxes.”

“We want him to pay his fair share, but he wants his property taxed at exactly the same rate as everyone else—”

Booz interrupted her. “You,” he said.  “I understand that Felix’s pronoun is you. So it’s, You want your property taxed at exactly the same rate.”

Nellie ignored Booz. “He,” she continued, as Booz shrugged, “will be asking for a reduction at the meeting tonight on Zoom. I just want to let you know so that you could add your voices to the protest.” And, with that, Nellie turned and walked back through the valley toward the gate.

“Felix O’Brien, right here in our humble hamlet,” I said, still not able to believe it. “This is going to sound ever slightly delusional, but Felix follows me on Telegram. He only follows 100 people; he has a self-imposed limit.  And he counts me in.  I shared Russian anti-lockdown memes that caught his eye.”   

“You think you followed you here?” asked Booz.

I replied with a prolonged, doubtful, “No,” which had an implied “but” hanging onto it. “Anyway, if I do happen to run into him at the feedstore or whatever, I wonder if I should reveal myself to him.  PM him on telegram:  Hey, it’s me. I’m right behind you next to the bags of haystretcher.”

“He’s not the only one. All the billionaires are moving in. Makes sense.  If the wheels come off the bus while they happen to be in Manhattan, they can commandeer trains get to here.  It’s a lot more rural and secret here than along the river.”

“. That bodes some strange eruption to the state, I bet.  They’re wargaming the election outcome. Might try to provoke a civil war.”

“Getting their bunkers stocked,” answered Julia, who was watching Nellie’s retreating shade. “That Nellie though.”

“She tends toward blaming and name calling,” I explained to Julia. “Nellie doesn’t have to make a coherent argument because she currently has the brute bureaucracy of the state health department backing her up. She doesn’t need to convince you with logical arguments. She can threaten you.”

“She wears her mask on Zoom, I bet,” said Booz. 

Julia took the wager and would later lose five dollars to Booz. 

After our garden harvest dinner of sautéed cabbage, beets and shredded carrots, Julia and I followed the link Nellie sent. One by one the online gallery filled with faces of neighbors who had not thought to tilt the screen so that the camera didn’t look up their noses, had not tidied up the living room behind them. One guy had left a stick of Old Spice deodorant on the book shelf behind him. In the upper left corner, Ray, the town assessor was finishing his steak dinner at his kitchen table. Every time he lunged his end forward to take a bite, fork, sauce smothered steak and open mouth filled his screen.  Betty was in her office at the Town Hall, but Nellie was at home with an unmade bed in the background.  Both Nellie and Betty wore masks.

“They apparently think that wearing a mask is a treatment as well as prevention,” said Julia.

“She’s the expert,” I said.

Felix O’Brien did not materialize. Instead, his well-spoken well-lit lawyer appeared.  His camera was positioned at eye-level and had light rings in his pupils.  He was in a well appointed home office, probably in Manhattan, but his book shelves were messy, stacked with lose papers and crummy knick knacks.

“Well, let’s get started, shall we?” said the lawyer, taking control of the meeting. The town assessor was muted.  He mouthed something no one heard. The lawyer proceeded to present his client’s case with constructions of logic so unassailable—and so politely to boot—that by the end of the presentation, Betty found herself thanking Mr. O’Brien’s counsel for the “wise” and “informative” proposal.  Felix got his tax liability reduced. 

Legend has it that Mother Jones was similarly seduced by Rockefeller’s flattery and condescension when he visited coal miners in their pathetic camp.

“You know what I’ve realized,” I said to Julia after shutting down the computer, “seeing the elites in their homes these past six or seven months—newscasters, politicians, even a billionaire’s lawyer—their homes are really uninteresting and not at all beautiful. Seems hardly worth selling out.”

Julia looked around. “It’s lovely here.”

###


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