Josh McColough ~The Pandemic Sessions, Vol. II: Safety

Nonfiction
How are you hold­ing up?

Fine. Just fine. Actually, pret­ty good. Can you see me okay? You look a lit­tle pix­e­lat­ed. It’s prob­a­bly my Wi-Fi, sor­ry. Anyway, I’m doing pret­ty well, con­sid­er­ing. It’s inter­est­ing because I think this whole thing has revealed an odd per­son­al­i­ty quirk—or maybe it’s not so odd, it’s just been brought to the fore. I don’t mind iso­la­tion. That is the quirk. I find this kind of isolation—‘social dis­tanc­ing,’ as they’re call­ing it—to have blan­ket-like qual­i­ties. For me, at least. I’m wrap­ping myself in it. People seem fair­ly put off by hav­ing to dis­tance them­selves from one anoth­er, but with me it’s like ‘you don’t have to tell me twice,’ you know? I don’t know if that’s a gen­er­a­tional thing. I’m Gen X. My wife is, tech­ni­cal­ly, a Millennial—but she’s like right on the cusp, so her ten­den­cies vary, depend­ing. But I grew up play­ing by myself for hours or days, even. Using my imag­i­na­tion and what­not. The Atari or, lat­er, Nintendo, was a treat for which we need­ed to ask per­mis­sion. So was the TV, for that mat­ter. In our home, at least. Anyway, this is all kind of remind­ing me of those long, leg­less days when you were tired of your friends, tired of rid­ing bikes or play­ing Statue Tag or Kick the Can or Colored Eggs. You’d explored the back­yards and the side­walks and the con­crete drainage ditch­es of the neigh­bor­hood and you’d skinned your knees and elbows raw and your par­ents stung them with Solarcaine till you cried. And you’d got­ten into enough trou­ble. You’d exper­i­ment­ed with pieces of ply­wood atop a skate­board as a makeshift go-kart. You played guns. You’d got­ten a hold of a brick of bot­tle rock­ets and tried tap­ing a bunch of them togeth­er then light­ing them to see what would hap­pen. You exper­i­ment­ed with minor van­dal­ism or stole pet­ty things from big stores just to see if you could get away with it. It would be rain­ing or you were just fuck­ing done with your friends and your sib­lings, and you’d be inside, in your bed­room or your base­ment, play­ing. LEGOs or GI Joe or Star Wars or what­ev­er was around. Old toys. Baby toys, which were okay to play with again because your friends weren’t there to mock you. Besides, they were doing it too. You were home free. There’s a rea­son you scream that in Ghost in the Graveyard and those kinds of games in which you are hunt­ed but evade being tagged. You can’t be touched. You’re safe. Anyway, this feels a lit­tle like that. Maybe I’m infan­tiliz­ing. Regardless, I’m find­ing I can do this brand of iso­la­tion stand­ing on my head, both hands in my pock­ets. It doesn’t feel like iso­la­tion. It feels like a par­ent sent me to my room or the school sent me home, which I nev­er mind­ed in the least. Like right before all of this, my wife received pass­es to a suite at the United Center for a Blackhawks game, cour­tesy of our house con­trac­tors who had talked her into doing an on-cam­era tes­ti­mo­ni­al for their com­pa­ny as a sat­is­fied cus­tomer. They ren­o­vat­ed our fire­place, did some paint­ing, laid down new car­pet­ing. They did a good job. The place looks nice. But they gave us two dozen pass­es, which meant we had to find two dozen friends between us. This is our sec­ond marriage—for both of us—so we don’t have any in-com­mon friends. Besides that, I don’t have many friends any­more. I’ve passed through so many stages of life that I find mak­ing and main­tain­ing friend­ship to be an exhaust­ing under­tak­ing. I don’t like ice­break­ers, and my life’s sto­ry just keeps get­ting longer, more com­plex, complicated—or, rather, nuanced such that intro­duc­to­ry smalltalk feels a mon­u­men­tal endeav­or, and then the ensu­ing weeks, months of delv­ing deep­er into grounds I’ve already cov­ered, it’s just—so any­way I choose not to. My last group of new friends was in grad school—that was more than twen­ty years ago. I knew then they would be my last group of new friends. I told them as much. Sometimes I still talk to one or two of them. Anyway, we extend­ed invi­ta­tions to people—friends, I sup­pose, for lack of cold­er terminology—for the Hawks game, and for the four weeks pri­or to the game, I ago­nized over it. My peo­ple didn’t real­ly know one anoth­er, and I didn’t know their spous­es. My wife’s friends didn’t know any of my friends. I wor­ried about the open, gratis access to top-shelf booze in the suite. Who might get drunk, behave bad­ly, maybe piss off the suite own­ers. Maybe it would be me. It prob­a­bly would be me, then I would shame my wife, myself in front of “friends.” I dread­ed it. The pan­dem­ic hap­pened and the NHL can­celed the sea­son just three days before the game. Tragedy avert­ed, I tore up the suite pass­es and opened a bot­tle of wine and drank it. All by myself in the com­fort and safe­ty of our ren­o­vat­ed fam­i­ly room.

 

How are you hold­ing up?

Not bad. Days are a lit­tle repet­i­tive, but like I said before, it feels famil­iar to me. Keeping busy enough. Teaching has moved online, which feels com­plete­ly inef­fec­tu­al to those of us who have nev­er desired to teach online. And writ­ing? No. I haven’t been writ­ing. Who could? The news cycle is enough to make a per­son want to hang them­selves. Christ. Creative pur­suits feel a bit friv­o­lous. Maybe a less jad­ed per­son would say that now is exact­ly the right time for cre­ativ­i­ty. They prob­a­bly would. But I kind of feel like right now cre­ativ­i­ty isn’t an essen­tial ser­vice, as they are say­ing. It actu­al­ly reminds me of an episode in grad school on 9/11. The morn­ing of. The world was just fuck­ing chaos. You remem­ber how it was, how it felt. The images of the spec­tral planes swoop­ing unnat­u­ral­ly low and the gray build­ings. The per­spec­tive of it had MC Escher-like qual­i­ties, like it was an opti­cal illu­sion until the things con­verged and then a bril­liant fire­ball against the azure sky. And then the build­ings col­lapsed, and every­thing turned the col­or of ele­phant skin and you felt like you were chok­ing on dust, no mat­ter where you were. Anyway, we were in Iowa. Friends, col­leagues from out east—from New York City, especially—tried to get a hold of oth­er friends and fam­i­ly back home. They couldn’t get through. Our students—all of these 18-year old, blonde, fresh faced kids from the mid­dle of nowhere Iowa or the sub­urbs of Chicago—took it in with a dis­tant, cin­e­mat­ic awe. New York City may as well have been a ridge on Mars’ south­ern hemi­sphere, as far as they were con­cerned. You know? And these were the kids of Columbine—the gen­er­a­tion bap­tized into school shoot­ings and mass trau­ma of that ilk—so you saw the traces of a gen­er­a­tion less affect­ed by what they saw on TV than those of us who bore wit­ness to the Challenger explo­sion. Anyway, I had to teach a few class­es that day, but real­ly didn’t want to. None of us did. In the English build­ing, there was a pal­pa­ble buzzing—an excit­ed antic­i­pa­tion. Something Big was hap­pen­ing in the world, and should we can­cel class because of it? Felt like we should. I encoun­tered a col­league in the hallway—I’ll nev­er for­get what she said because it kind of haunts me to this day. I real­ly won­der if it haunts her. She held court with a bunch of oth­er grad­u­ate instruc­tors and declared, “People, mass hys­te­ria is no rea­son to can­cel aca­d­e­m­ic, intel­lec­tu­al pur­suits.” I was moved to imme­di­ate anger by this, think­ing that there were thou­sands of people—fellow Americans, to use a trite­ly patri­ot­ic phrase—lost, utter­ly lost and con­fused, injured, maimed, crushed, burned, miss­ing, etcetera. People were falling from great heights on top of oth­er peo­ple below. Her clas­si­fi­ca­tion of that event as ‘mass hys­te­ria,’ was as inap­pro­pri­ate as it was tech­ni­cal­ly flawed. A dis­parate group of peo­ple claim­ing to suf­fer from the same phys­i­cal or psy­chogenic ill­ness­es due to fear of real or per­ceived threats—that’s the sum­ma­tion of ‘mass hys­te­ria’ that I recall from my col­lege psych class. Anyway, were we not can­cel­ing class to sim­ply bear wit­ness? Isn’t it impor­tant in times like that, like these, to bear wit­ness? Perhaps that was out­mod­ed. Maybe it was the com­fort and safe­ty of dis­tance from the Awful Event she was react­ing to—but the thought of going in and teach­ing rhetoric and argu­ment analy­sis to a group of kids that morn­ing sim­ply didn’t jibe. You know? I feel that way right now. Don’t you feel that way? Doesn’t every­one feel like that? Things that we deem impor­tant, day to day, are so high­ly con­tex­tu­al. Are you notic­ing the increas­ing num­ber of TV com­mer­cials that are direct­ly address­ing these ‘unprece­dent­ed’ or ‘uncer­tain times?’ It only took maybe a week before those terms lost their mean­ing. I’m imag­in­ing a mar­ket­ing exec at, like General Mills, who just a month ago had his ass chewed out for Lucky Charms’ abysmal, lag­ging sales. (“But, sir, you know that our sales spike around St. Patrick’s Day, then dip a bit through the sum­mer. It’s more of a spring/fall kind of com­fort cere­al.” “I don’t give a sweet fuck, Henry. If you don’t get those num­bers up, I’ll have your lucky charms in a vice so fast.”) So he pays the ass chew­ing for­ward to his ad or mar­ket­ing agency, telling them to come up with some­thing or else. Then this hap­pens, and maybe the mar­ket­ing exec is rethink­ing the order of things, as the sales of Lucky Charms feels some­how less than impor­tant. I sup­pose if he’s in mar­ket­ing, what he’s actu­al­ly think­ing is how to par­lay this virus into increased sales. During these ‘unprece­dent­ed times.’ Maybe that’s an illus­tra­tion of why cre­ativ­i­ty is need­ed now. Still, I don’t feel like it.

 

How are you hold­ing up?

Ugh. I feel slight­ly off. Like a cou­ple of ticks this side of depressed, maybe. I’m tak­ing the max­i­mum dose of Zoloft, and I feel more or less like if not for that I’d be in bed, under the cov­ers, all fuck­ing day long. I don’t have that sense of unre­al­i­ty that comes with my old friend depres­sion, but I don’t feel far off from that either. You know what I mean? I am putting a lot of faith in the lit­tle Zoloft mol­e­cules doing their col­lec­tive, neu­ropsy­chic duty against odds that are the things of war movies. They’re com­plete­ly sur­round­ed, and the ene­my is clos­ing in. I keep imag­in­ing the lit­tle Zoloft mol­e­cules form­ing a huge chain, Red Rover-style, hold­ing off the depres­sion mol­e­cules, which for some rea­son I have imag­ined bear the face of Bob Heckle—a neigh­bor­hood bul­ly grow­ing up; thin mous­tache, feath­ered hair, mir­rored sun­glass­es, a mus­cle car and a wood­en base­ball bat—who keeps try­ing to burst through. Bob Heckle was the bad­dest of the bad awful bul­lies, I can­not over­state that enough. We scat­tered like fuck­ing roach­es if Bob Heckle came around. His par­tic­u­lar brand of ter­ror was free roam­ing and indis­crim­i­nate. He had unlim­it­ed range, so no mat­ter where you were, you just weren’t safe. Anyway, his face imme­di­ate­ly popped into my head as the face of depres­sion mol­e­cules because of the brute nature of their attacks. The lit­tle Zoloft mol­e­cules all wear this Superman-style “Z” on their chests, which are nor­mal­ly bulging and mus­cu­lar. So my lit­tle Zoloft mol­e­cules are strong, but they are get­ting a real, con­stant drub­bing from Bob “Crippling Depression” Heckle, and it’s unclear how much longer they can hold the line. They’re only as strong as the weak­est mol­e­cule and all of that, right? Once one of the lit­tle Zoloft mol­e­cules’ tiny arms feel the hor­ri­ble full weight of Bob “Crippling Depression” Heckle’s acne-ed body launch­ing against them, the dam breaks and depression—a thin-mus­tached, ear­ly 80s bully—prevails. Once that hap­pens, I don’t know what the fuck I’m going to do.

 

How are you hold­ing up?

I made the mis­take of read­ing about vic­tims of this pan­dem­ic, this virus. Stayed awake for near­ly a whole night last week just read­ing obit­u­ar­ies from region­al news sites. A lot of them have a whole spe­cial sec­tion of virus-relat­ed death notices, which I found odd and dis­turb­ing. It appeared as if ‘virus death’ was a spe­cial, lim­it­ed edi­tion kind of death. It chilled me. Anyway, there they all were—dozens and dozens of human beings of var­i­ous ages—separate from the nat­ur­al caus­es, can­cer, heart attack, car acci­dent, sui­cide, gun­shot deaths. But there was this one guy in par­tic­u­lar that struck me, and I haven’t been able to shake it since. I can’t remem­ber the guy’s name, but he was a dec­o­rat­ed Vietnam veteran—a marine—who’d sur­vived Khe Sanh, sur­vived being a junior high teacher, sur­vived mar­riage, and sur­vived cancer—lymphoma, I think it was. This virus killed him, though. This. I wish I could remem­ber his name. I read about him and imag­ined inter­minable days and hours in Vietnam dur­ing battle—this Marine fight­ing on what­ev­er reserve fumes he nev­er knew exist­ed with­in him, believ­ing that he would die. Accepting death in his heart, for all of the death that sur­round­ed him. Accepting death in his head. Perhaps then, lat­er, came the sur­prise that he’d sur­vived, despite los­ing so many of his friends. Perhaps the relief of return­ing home to safe­ty. Home free. A wife, mul­ti­ple kids, grand­kids. Devotes his career to teach­ing an age of child so flip­pant and over­run with hor­mones that no sane per­son would choose to enter a class­room with one of them with­out cer­ti­fied nerves of blue steel. Fights can­cer, fights lym­phoma. Wins again. More relief. Home free—again. Then a cough, a fever, a ven­ti­la­tor and no funer­al. Dies alone. No one to see him off, as it were. After all of that. I know I’m infer­ring a lot about a stranger based on a few para­graphs in the local ‘spe­cial virus death obit­u­ary’ sec­tion. I think his name was Dan or Dale. Maybe in his life, he was an addict or abu­sive, but the obit was fair­ly lauda­to­ry of both life and lega­cy. Or maybe he’d lived a full life to sat­is­fac­to­ry com­ple­tion. Nothing left to see or do or accom­plish. Visited all of the con­ti­nents with his wife, took pic­tures on the Great Wall and shared an Aperol Spritz with her at a café on the Amalfi coast. Still. To have sur­vived so much, then to be mowed down by the repli­ca­tion of viral pro­tein. I read so many of these sto­ries like (maybe) Dan’s/Dale’s. But read­ing about him caused me to lose my men­tal and emo­tion­al shit pret­ty hard, right there in bed. My wife woke up and I said I was just hav­ing a bad dream. She said, “Don’t wor­ry, you’re safe.”

 

How are you hold­ing up?

….and, real­ly, this is the thing— This is the thing that feels omnipresent in the most infu­ri­at­ing way. The thing I can’t shake, though, is an inevitabil­i­ty that I felt also in my child­hood dur­ing those long, sum­mer days. At some point, we have to emerge from the house and go out into the world. Even though a virus doesn’t real­ly care how long it’s been—how tired you are of not going places. How much you long for a night out at a restau­rant. That tapas place where we used to get san­gria and dátiles con toci­no. That street taco place where we used to get bar­ba­coa and papas con rajas. That tav­ern where we used to sam­ple a dif­fer­ent local IPA each time. How bad­ly you want to get on a plane and go anywhere—could be Toledo, Ohio, for all you care. Just not here. You have to return to the class­room. You have to return to your car, to the store, to the gas sta­tion, to the dentist’s office. And out there some­where is the Thing itself. Bob “The Virus” Heckle with his mus­tache and his bat. There’s this awful game I’ve been play­ing on my com­put­er instead of writ­ing or read­ing or think­ing about teach­ing in the fall. You are a dart-wield­ing mon­key, for some rea­son. You choose a map and you place these var­i­ous spike-wield­ing tow­ers through­out the map to pop a non­stop flur­ry of bal­loons that parade through the course. The bal­loons come in a vari­ety of shapes, col­ors and strengths—the col­ors of the bal­loons cor­re­late to the strength of the bal­loon. Some bal­loons burst into dozens of oth­er bal­loons. So like a black bal­loon is popped and turns into thir­teen oth­er bal­loons that need to be popped. Your tow­ers all have dif­fer­ent capabilities—one is a can­non that blows up mul­ti­ple bal­loons, one is a sub­ma­rine that can be placed in water, one is a nin­ja mon­key that throws a shuriken to pop the bal­loons. And so on. You get the idea. Anyway, I myself am a Level 70 bal­loon pop­per. That should give you an idea of how many times I’ve played this. I find the game to be sooth­ing, cathar­tic. I don’t know why I can’t stop play­ing it. The bal­loons start out small, slow. As a trick­le, and as you pop them you get mon­ey to buy and place new defense tow­ers. Every round, the bal­loons increase in vol­ume and inten­si­ty, and you win the game if you make it eighty-five rounds with­out let­ting 150 bal­loons com­plete the course unharmed. If you suc­ceed, you win extra mon­ey, lives, and defens­es. Just by pop­ping these bal­loons. Extra mon­ey, lives and defens­es. I play for hours. I for­got to feed the dog one after­noon, I had been play­ing so much. And there’s this one make-or-break lev­el that tests your strate­gic, bal­loon-pop­ping met­tle. Whether you’ve got the right defens­es with the right upgrades in the right places. It’s lev­el 76. On Level 76, the bal­loons of dif­fer­ent sizes and strengths come so fast that my lap­top lags—there’s just too much action hap­pen­ing, and the proces­sor can’t keep up. The screen slows and then freezes and the MacBook spin­ning wheel appears. If I have a spe­cial Super Monkey thing, I can clear the whole board with it, reap the cash and car­ry on. Sometimes the proces­sor can keep up and it will con­tin­ue. Sometimes not. But it only does this on Level 76. I was play­ing the oth­er day and got to Level 76, and the bal­loons rushed out from the left of the screen. Just pour­ing out, and my lit­tle mon­key tow­er defens­es did their best to destroy them, but the action on the screen slowed and even­tu­al­ly froze. I just wait­ed, watch­ing the spin­ning wheel to see if it might stop and the game would come back to life and car­ry on. Nothing hap­pened and I knew I’d like­ly have to shut down my com­put­er. But as sure as Bob Heckle would take a bat to us all, I wait­ed.

~

Josh McColough’s short fic­tion has appeared in Split Lip Magazine and SPLASH! (Haunted Waters Press). He has an MFA from the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program.