Pleasantville, New York
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.