C0VlD-1984, The Musical
V. N. Alexander
for Ben Jorgensen
June 2020. Cheek to the cold floor, thick sole on my back, I began to sense my place in this moment in history.
I had thought I was playing the hero, arriving just in time to save my mother when I was put in a chokehold, thrown to the ground and tasered. “I didn’t realize…” I heard myself croak, “I just want to see my mom.”
The shoe pressed harder. “She’s gone, Son,” said its voice, not unkindly, then it stomped the wind out of me.
How did we get here? Life shuttered. Shop gates down. Planes grounded. Government offices not answering the phone. Yellow caution tape wrapped around jungle gyms. Guards using tasers on soccer moms, pastors, and bereaved sons.
I saw it coming and yet it all happened so fast. Half the inhabitants of Earth under house arrest. I am still in awe. It is really quite impressive. If 9/11 was the prologue, this is the main event, and once again I find myself listed in the dramatis personae.
When I stepped off the plane and turned my American cell phone back on, a week of Mom’s old messages came piling up but there was nothing new. She had been bringing “healthy food, vitamin D3, zinc, and hydroxychloroquine care packages” to “our heavy friends,” i.e. our morbidly obese neighbors, whose immune systems had, unsurprisingly, left the doors wide open for Covid. When she heard that steroids plus some of the medicine she had leftover from her recent trip to India could help, she got it to Ariel Burton and Kimmie Hogg, who had both been sent home by the doctor and told, “Don’t come back unless your lips turn blue.”
It must have been sixteen or so years since Gertrude had any interactions with locals like Ariel and Kimmie. When my mother and I first moved from Brooklyn to our little rural hamlet in the Harlem Valley, Gertrude volunteered to be on the public school wellness committee. She politely hid her surprise when she found that Kimmie—who would require a forklift if she ever got seriously sick or died—was the school nutritionist. Gertrude ultimately failed to improve the menu, which featured pancakes or cheese pizza for lunch on three days out of five. Ariel’s mom had schooled her, pointing out that “health comes in all sizes,” and Gertrude had chastised herself for not comprehending that obesity was a lifestyle choice. Since those days, the childhood obesity epidemic had given rise to adult millennials with ruined metabolisms who carried the great weight of their parents’ mistakes everywhere they lumbered. I had seen poor Ariel, who was about my age, leverage herself out of her car, heave her enormous body left, then right, left, right, when she finally made it to a shopping cart, she would throw her massive front end upon it and maneuver cart and body awkwardly through the grocery stores aisles.
I have to give her credit. I don’t find it so easy to walk a fifty-pound feedbag from my truck to the barn. I probably wouldn’t be able to get very far at all with four or five bags draped over my shoulders and strapped around my legs.
Those bad habits had birthed a brood of troubles. Now with this new epidemic, an extension of the old epidemic, my mother became ashamed for having given up on them and she was making amends. With her help these women—who, let’s be honest, probably still resented Gertrude—were now “getting out for walks” and Kimmie Hogg, who had shed the weight equivalent of a feedbag, was fully recovered from Covid.
Then Gertrude lost her sense of smell, and she had given away all her medicine. Although she felt sure her immune system was up for the challenge, “just to be cautious,” she said went to her doctor to ask for a refill. Her doctor dismissed her request for “a malaria drug,” and sent her for treatment at the hospital, “some new anti-viral cocktail called remdesivir” they were trying out. When she texted me this news, I told her the travel ban was being lifted, and I would be on the first flight out. Then her text messages stopped.
Ten days later, when my taxi brought me to the hospital, I had to run a gauntlet passed nurses to get to my mom. I found her ventilated behind a glass wall. I was trying to open the door when the guards came. In the heat of battle, despite the fact that the five or six combative nurses and guards had lost or thrown aside their own masks, they were all yelling, spraying spittle in my face, “Just wear a fucking mask, motherfucker.” Then I felt an electric shot through my chest.
As I stirred some time later upon a gurney in an empty hallway, I pulled a mask from my face. A nurse in clownish scrubs materialized saying, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa,” as she motioned for me to stay put.
“Where’s my mom?”
The nurse stammered, “Wull they take ‘em to the…”
As I swung my feet off the gurney to the floor, two security guards appeared at my sides. I numbly put up no resistance as we went arm-in-arm toward the exit. They chattered along the way, explaining that what happened to me never happens, and, if I had just obeyed their orders, they wouldn’t have had to do that, and although it is true that wearing a mask isn’t a law in the usual sense, I was trespassing, and on that point the law would stick, and they were in the right. When they got through the sliding doors and launched me toward the sidewalk, one said, “Uber there for you.”
The same black car that I had taken from the airport pulled up. The passenger side window slid down and the familiar kind face of the unmasked driver looked at me with hopeless concern. I got into the back seat and mechanically recited my old home address on top of Silo Ridge. As the car swung around and headed in that direction, I told myself that Gertrude knew that I appreciated everything she ever did for me. We went through a rough time when she married that criminal Claudius, but we got through it. She must have known, when they put her under, that I was on my way and that I would arrive in time to save her. I was sure she never doubted that for a moment that I would come as quickly as I could.
The kind driver handed me his box of tissues. Suddenly, it hit me. I began to sob. I was too late.
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