George Choundas ~ In the Covidium

Pleasantville, New York

Day P             

Since the stay-at-home order we show­er most­ly in the evenings. After tonight’s show­er I put on cologne for the do of it. It’s gone ran­cid. Top notes of rust­ed sled run­ner, base notes of a fat fruit left to roll under the hot work­ing parts of a gro­cery cool­er and aban­doned there.

Each day the same as the next. Turns out it’s refresh­ing nov­el­ty, a sur­prise rot.

Day P + 3       

When I was young my father sold hot dogs for a liv­ing. Occasionally I’d go to work with him, ride in the step van to his spot between the Jersey City Medical Center and the Montgomery Gardens hous­ing com­plex. I’d watch him make change, and fan­ta­size about eat­ing all the bar­be­cue chips, and ask to see the starter pis­tol he once showed the cus­tomer who showed him a knife. My dad’s real name is Panagiotis. He told cus­tomers his name was Joe.

I love things with two names. Our par­ents used to take my sis­ter and me to eat out once a week; the place was called Gino’s Kentucky Fried Chicken. All her life my moth­er told me she dreamed one day of own­ing a Lincoln Continental, and by the time she final­ly bought one, at age sev­en­ty four, the mod­el name was no longer “Lincoln Continental,” nor “Lincoln Town Car”—but “Lincoln Continental Town Car.”

Which is it? Forget which, says the dou­ble-named object. Forget being sil­ly. It’s both. Double names are for the replete. I am a thing extreme. I am excess and stu­pen­dous. So much much needs two names.  

This plague, it ruins even the felic­i­ty of a dou­ble name. Is it the nov­el coro­n­avirus? Or COVID-19? The answer is yes. Such does its threat and men­ace sprawl, so fick­ly does it choose and so var­i­ous­ly does it pun­ish, it needs a sec­ond name to fit.

Day P + 7       

I have become a per­son who draws con­nois­seur dis­tinc­tions among bleach wipes, pal­pat­ing admir­ing­ly the spec­i­mens from the sop­ping bot­tom of the can.

Day P + 12     

In the course of each root­less, hap­less attempt to make sense of it, a dark-web part of my brain posits the answer in glow-green-on-con­spir­a­cy-black hyper­text. COVID-19 must be Generation X’s bill come due for the implau­si­bly gold­en era of the 1990s. Oil embar­goes and gas short­ages end­ed with the 1970s. Fears of cold war armaged­don fad­ed with the 1980s. The 1990s were a vic­to­ry lap. Peace pre­vailed, peo­ples flour­ished. Historians called it the end of his­to­ry. Even the cold­est eyes saw a unipo­lar world where America at least tried to be the good guy.

But all in life is a trade-off, and the era of improb­a­ble boon dragged behind it the inevitable rever­sal. The 2001 attacks marred the dream; the 2008 reces­sion man­gled it; the 2020 pan­dem­ic means to mur­der it and bury it in night­mare.

We’ve lost jobs, peace of mind. Loved ones. It is ridicu­lous, then, to notice that the mil­len­ni­als must choose between beards and a prop­er mask fit. That the retirees have been dis­pos­sessed of their stay-at-home monop­oly. That the genex­ers watch their cohort gen­er­a­tions pay a kar­ma tax they don’t right­ly owe.

Is the expla­na­tion facile? Reductive? Yes. Both are its name. It is excess and stu­pid. It is the expla­na­tion from the sop­ping bot­tom of my brain.

Day P + 14     

Monday morn­ing. A school day. I’m in the kitchen get­ting cof­fee. In comes Claire, nine and hazel-eyed. She’s pirou­et­ting and hum­ming light­ly to her­self. She’s not approach­ing to ask a school­work ques­tion. She’s not going to the fridge or the cab­i­nets for a snack. It’s not clear what she’s doing.

What are you doing?

Claire looks at me for the first time, still pirou­et­ting.

Twirls, she says, and twirls back out the same way she came.

Of course. Twirls. 

 

Rome, Italy

Day R   

My cousin Tania lives in Rome. She is an anes­the­si­ol­o­gist by train­ing. In today’s Rome, how­ev­er, all doc­tors are plague doc­tors.

At least she is accus­tomed to masked patients.

There are a lot of them. Same symp­toms, same diag­no­sis. A hos­pi­tal full of clones. More even than before, the doc­tors and the nurs­es work to remem­ber the patients’ per­sonn­hood, to say their names. They pre­tend it’s not betray­al when death comes so eas­i­ly, non­cha­lant­ly. For their trou­bles they get oblit­er­a­tion.

Day R + 40  

Tania is hos­pi­tal­ized with the coro­n­avirus. Not hos­pi­tal­ized; she’s already inside. She is admit­ted. She trades lan­yard for bracelet.

She calls her hus­band, speaks with both sons. Basically it’s a very long shift with a very short patient ros­ter.  

She is all the things you’d expect. Hopelorn, sub­ju­gat­ed, ter­ri­fied.

Logic used to be a solace. Now it is a demon. Exposure was always both impossible—every pre­cau­tion assid­u­ous­ly observed, metic­u­lous­ly admin­is­tered,  glove, mask, gown, mask, shield, mask, mask, mask—and inevitable.

They give her an anti­malar­i­al called hydrox­y­chloro­quine and an antivi­ral called Kaletra. Eating is out of the ques­tion. Thinking about eat­ing sets off waves of revul­sion. Acknowledging as a notion­al mat­ter for even a fleet­ing moment the propo­si­tion that eat­ing food is a thing humans are known to do means plung­ing into a dark spin­ning infi­nite roil­ing quease.

Day R + 43    

Lying in the bed next to Tania’s is an old woman. She tells Tania about her life in scat­tered pieces. She is alert. But speak­ing more than a few sen­tences exhausts her. It’s up to Tania to put the pieces in order.

Day R + 45    

The old woman is not doing well. At night, Tania goes over and caress­es the side of the woman’s head, brush­ing light­ly through her white hair, thin but so soft. Tania also holds the woman’s hand. Now and then the woman squeezes briefly, hard. It’s as clear as if she were speak­ing the words.

Don’t leave me.

Day R + 46    

The old woman pass­es away. Tania watch­es as they put her in a bag, as they zip the bag almost closed, as they spray the inside of the bag, fill the bag with spray, keep spray­ing, as still they spray even after nobody could doubt there is enough spray. Stop spray­ing. Looking away is the same as leav­ing. Tania watch­es as they lift the bag and gur­ney it away. The gur­ney does not clat­ter; it glides smooth, like every­thing is just as it should be. The gur­ney is a liar.

Day R + 48    

At the dis­charge desk, a nurse—a colleague—regards her. She has nev­er seen a look like this before. It is an elec­tri­fy­ing mix of warmth and pity and envy and frank delight. He says to her:

You’ve returned to life.

Tania leaves the hos­pi­tal, walks home. It is the walk of her life. She is over­whelmed by the kind­ness of the air. There’s so much of it, car­ry­ing sun, end­less. She can­not repay the air.

 

Hollywood, California

Day H            

In the covid­i­um, every night is Movie Night. My wife Cathy and Claire get the couch, Peter the plush red chair. I get the leather chair against the wall.

Blade Runner: People in the future are so tired and tired of things—and there are a lot of things, buzzing and blink­ing and mak­ing peo­ple tired—that every sen­tence or piece of dia­logue comes after a pause of between ten and fif­teen min­utes.

Day H + 2      

Terminator 2: Things are not what they seem. The clean-cut gen­tle­man wear­ing a police uni­form is a slaugh­ter machine. He’s made of liq­uid, which seems weak, but in fact proves near-invin­ci­ble.

Day H + 3      

The Blackcoat’s Daughter: Prep school stu­dents stuck on cam­pus after the end of the semes­ter start wor­ship­ping the fur­nace in the base­ment and kill peo­ple, too.

Peter is four­teen and Claire, you know already, is nine. Cathy and I have a work­ing the­o­ry that films depict­ing a real­i­ty bleak­er than the covid­i­um can’t help but be uplift­ing.

A work­ing the­o­ry is not the same as a the­o­ry that works.

Day H + 4

Day H + 5

Day H + 6      

Titanic: Three nights. It’s a long-ass movie.

It’s also a mere­ly sen­sa­tion­al movie, made inter­est­ing by a sin­gle detail.

Jack tells Rose to meet him at the ship’s clock and waits—but  fac­ing the clock. We assume he can’t stand the idea she might not come.

Later, as the ship sinks, Mister Andrews, the ship’s design­er, loi­ters near the clock in a kind of fugue—paying no atten­tion to the cant­i­ng decks, the flee­ing pas­sen­gers—fac­ing the clock. We assume he’s lost his mind.

Still lat­er, the 102-year-old Rose dies peace­ful­ly in bed, and in the after­life that follows—a sequence ecsta­t­ic and aglow—the ship’s cap­tain and crew and pas­sen­gers, very much alive, greet her in the Grand Hall with bows and beam­ing smiles, and there, at the top of the stair­case, stands Jack. Facing the clock.

The clock, we real­ize, rep­re­sents nei­ther des­per­a­tion nor psy­chosis. It stands for fate; inevitabil­i­ty; sur­ren­der.  They face the clock because the every­day around them, the world of sweat and fur­ni­ture, has fall­en away, final­ly imma­te­r­i­al. The inevitable reigns. Facing the clock is look­ing away. Looking away is the same as leav­ing.

The old life cants unrec­og­niz­able under our feet. No longer can we con­trive sig­nif­i­cance. No longer can we book appoint­ments to be clam­ored for, trav­el to feel indis­pens­able. In the covid­i­um, we face the clocks, the cal­en­dars, the news, the phones, the zooms, the sim­u­lacra. The every­day world shrinks away. We cede to the inevitable.

Claire is scan­dal­ized at see­ing a price­less gem tossed into the ocean. Peter insists he would “rock” Billy Zane, with or with­out weapons.

Day H + 8      

Matilda: Nothing bleak about it. We watch it because it’s bril­liant. There is no vil­lain more ter­ri­fy­ing in the his­to­ry of cin­e­ma than Agatha Trunchbull. There is no come­up­pance sweet­er than telekine­sis, deft and restrained. There is no hap­pi­er end­ing than liv­ing with Miss Honey, sec­ond name Bumblebee, in a well-porched house lush with flow­ers.

Day H + 10    

Total Recall: A resis­tance-fight­ing-sex-work­er type has three breasts. She bares them. She lets a treach­er­ous cab-dri­ver spy fon­dle them. In fair­ness, the movie is about a lot of oth­er stuff, too. It’s hard to remem­ber what else. The rest of the film I spent think­ing: We are either the best par­ents in the world or the worst.

Day Finally    

Here’s a film. In the post­co­vid­i­um, we eat food along­side hap­py strangers. We approach each oth­er with aban­don. We while away the day with Miss Honey on the porch, mask­less, enter­tain­ing streams of hug-grade vis­i­tors, backs to all the clocks.

Later, come evening and fire­flies, we move to the slop­ing lawn and dare our vis­i­tors to ask.  

Twirls, obvi­ous­ly.

~

George Choundas’ fic­tion and non­fic­tion have appeared in over fifty pub­li­ca­tions, includ­ing The Best Small Fictions, Alaska Quarterly Review, Boulevard, Harvard Review, The Southern Review, and Subtropics. His sto­ry col­lec­tion, The Making Sense of Things (FC2), was award­ed the Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize, as well as short­list­ed for the Robert C. Jones Prize for Short Prose, the St. Lawrence Book Award for Fiction, and the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction. He is a win­ner of the New Millennium Award for Fiction, a for­mer FBI agent, and half Cuban and half Greek.