Each afternoon, I call Mom in Florida and ask her questions. Are you staying inside? Were the bananas delivered? Did you wipe down the mailbox?
She says yes to everything I ask, though no is sometimes the accurate reply, I discover the next day.
“Are you staying away from that neighbor…Richard?”
“Yes,” she said on Tuesday. “I spoke to him through the closed door.”
“Are you getting any fresh air?” I asked on Wednesday.
“I took a short walk.”
“Good. Were there people out?”
“Empty. Just me. And Richard.”
Richard goes places, and we determined last week that he could transmit germs and that Mom should stay away from him. When he goes to the places, he offers to bring back items for my mother. Richard is a nice neighbor. My mother likes to have bananas. We determined that when Richard brings back the bananas, my mother would thank him through the louvers in the door and retrieve the sack once he had disappeared down the path. I asked her why she would thank him through the louvers yet go on a walk with him. She said that he was far away.
“Six feet away? Ten feet away?”
My mother is 83 and lives alone. She cannot see her friends, and her family is up north. She is happy that I call her every day. The next afternoon, she answers, giggling.
“You are like Rotocall.”
We laugh, and she tells me that she drove to a store for the bananas and a lovely girl put them in her back seat.
At the window, you hear the people clapping and cheering, and you join in. You push up the glass and stand tall, feeling thankful for the doctors and nurses and orderlies and custodians. The ambulance drivers, the cafeteria workers, the medics.
At 7:07, you come back “in,” and you think about the conversation that you had earlier in the day, the one in which your brother, a surgeon, told you that he was exposed to the virus in the hospital and was tested. And is fine. But was nervous. And kept it from your mother, who is 83 and would worry. Then you think about your sister-in-law and your nephew and your childhood pal and the poor soul from Mt. Sinai West and the nurses at Elmhurst and you fear for all of them, safe inside your kitchen, children in the next room.
Sometimes, I will say, “That is a good title for something,” and I write it down. I have a list of phrases, fragments and sentences that are waiting for stories to go with them.
A few years ago, I was watching the news late at night when one such batch of words formed in my head.
Tragedies Before Bed.
Snappy, right? This one is at the top of my list. But in all this time, I haven’t come up with a tale that suits its image, whether real or imagined. I certainly can’t waste such a title on something tame or humorous or mildly terrible, even. The words need weight. They need comfort thrust up against horror, safety against fear.
Each night after dinner, my daughters and I convene in front of the TV to watch a program, or seven, that will distract us from the day’s information. During the past 14 nights, we have cheered on American Idol contestants, rooted for Dr. Pol’s lame goats and played our favorite “This is Us” game, Predict-the-Next-Scene-Before-it-Happens. When we are tired, they go to bed, lulled by the drama of Hollywood Week. I stay up and switch the channel, unable to sleep before knowing where we all stand. Making sure I’ve got our house in order.
It is one after the other, the tragedies. Rapid fire. I pull up the covers and watch.
Before the alarm sounds, I wake up and read the overnight alerts on my phone. Non-essential businesses closed, economy collapsed, 15,000 infected. Good news, nothing unexpected. Then, I turn over and scroll through my email. NBC Rundown. Donald McNeil. (Praise the Lord for Donald McNeil.) Rejection letter. Elated, I put my feet on the floor and get up. At least the magazine is functioning.
I have been writing fiction for the past few months. It is a liberating pursuit, having covered real people and actual happenings for all of my career. My first short story was accepted for publication this Spring, and I hope that the production schedule is still intact. Meanwhile, I’ve been having a hard time pressing on with the collection from which it comes, as the themes don’t directly relate to isolation facilities or protective gear or community spread. It feels that creativity now should serve the greater good, but then again, creativity by its mere existence has always done that. So, I am stuck. Is what I’ve been writing about important enough right now? Appropriate enough? Responsible?
Each day, I tutor my students on the computer and think about the characters under the keys. I know that I will return to them soon. My expectation is that the work will change, having experienced this, having observed this. The words will just sound different, as they have in the past, emerging on the page after struggle or upset. I suspect, too, that new meaning will surface from what I’ve already written. Isolation, protection, community…the characters have contemplated these ideas. Now, maybe, they will sing them out. And that is good.
I have a new boyfriend. He is the best…compassionate, analytical, honest, smart. Oh, and he’s funny, too. To me, anyway. Most important, he knows what I’m thinking, and not about the silly things, like which movie I’d like to see or paint color I’d choose for the living room.
Yesterday, while I was telling everybody except for him that I was upset and worried about the people in the park, the throngs of people in the park, he just went ahead and took care of it. No fuss, no question. And, I had no idea what he was doing, not until this morning. I just love that.
We tried a different walk time today.
Last evening, you’d think there was a concert being held in our neighborhood park. People crossed the avenue in groups of three and four, arriving from all directions. They wheeled toddlers on bikes. They gathered in the middle of the sidewalk, blocking easy passage.
Parks have been left open. Presumably, people were to use their best judgment about entering, treating the decision as a gift, an oasis to be rationed and protected. People do not think this way.
We’re lucky to have one of the city’s most serene spaces just across the street, unruffled, beloved for its well-tended foliage, circular paths, peace. There is a footbridge where people sometimes set up easels. There are crocuses and statues and small-town smiles. There are benches for reading, thinking, crying. People, here, love their little park. Now, it could have been a refuge, even for a few minutes. It could have helped.
Instead, I imagined the human swell from four floors up and decided to try 10:36 instead of 7:50 or 8:02 or 9. Across the street, voices rose up from the playground, the lawns. Body after body poked through the trees. Everything was different.