Here in the village of X, we remain hopeful. As inhabitants of an old Yankee town, we have always practiced social distance. Half of us still seem to live in the Before Times and half in the New Truth. Our market, post office, and liquor store are full. In a wealthier village nearby, people wear high-end face masks while they shop. In a poorer village with greater exposure to state television, a sign at a café warns of the virus from “Wuhan China.” The virus is surely among us, but it still feels distant, cosmopolitan. How soon before that changes? Will it have changed by the time you’re reading this?
I drive by the houses of friends, their front parlors lit. Their lives look so toasty in the morning fog. Approaching my own house, I can see a stack of freshly laundered towels in the upstairs bathroom window and this places me in a deep, familial calm. I know of workaholics desperately looking for work. Some in tech or finance who usually spend their days in airport lounges may be surprised to discover that they have families. My six-year-old spends much of the day in a laptop haze as his playdates and education Zoom by. When the sun sets, we engage in fierce rounds of the Russian card game Durak (“the Fool”). According to some traditions, the loser, or Fool, must scrunch under the table and yell out, “Koo-ka-ree-koo!” (“Cock-a-doodle-doo!”). This is what I’ll remember twenty years later, if there is a twenty years later: acting the rooster to my son’s delight.
During the day, I present without symptoms. But I wake up at three in the morning in a sweat, without fail. I don’t have the virus. I have the fear. The sickness is bad, but the response is worse. I am a Leningrader. My grandfather died during the siege, trying to defend the city. Stalin was unprepared for the onslaught; he had executed his best generals before the war even began. The Army was unprepared. My grandfather was likely not issued a firearm. My father used to say that some soldiers fought the Germans with sticks. Seventy-five years later, our nominal leader has eliminated the pandemic-response team, has surrounded himself with sycophants and duraki. The increasingly scared and depressed tone of his appearances recalls Stalin’s tone when he first realized the scope of the crisis. What will our leader do when he realizes he is cornered? How will he ever give up power and surrender himself to his reckoning? I top off the tank of my car every time I go for a drive. The border with Canada is now closed.
We are walking a lot more now. I walk about six miles every day, always trying out new routes, discovering unexpected pastures brimming with muddy sheep. The weather is cold, with occasional intimations of spring. Everything is awaiting resurrection. I spend twenty minutes looking at an owl as she scans the horizon, west, south, east, north. I have never noticed the power of a squirrel’s jaw as she grips an acorn. Lord, please help me make something out of all this stillness.
Deep in the woods, the tree frogs and vagabond geese make for an awful symphony, as if they are trying to out-honk and out-screech one another. A flash storm overtakes me as I pass a derelict international children’s camp. I shelter inside what used to be an outdoor theatre space. Above me are drawings of the flags of various countries. There is a rotting wooden stage, along with the exhortation “Change the World.” I step on a Nerf football that looks like it has been mauled by the local possums.
On another walk, I meet an elderly couple on P— Road. The man is wearing a Marist College cap and his age makes him part of the vulnerable demographic. (As an asthmatic, I am vulnerable as well.) “Another human being!” the man shouts. “Another human being! Which road are you from?” I tell him. “We had someone from O— Road walking here yesterday!” It is as if we are living in medieval times, a meeting of pilgrims on the dusty highway. What news do you bring of O— Road?
My friend N. suggests tele-drinking. I finally give in and download Zoom on my laptop. At first, it’s a bit awkward, but soon I get soused and chummy, laughing and shouting at the screen. I don’t like how quickly I can get used to this. Maybe we were preparing for this life all along, the prophylactic life of homes and screens and pantries. “How are things in the city?” I ask N. “I’m not in the city,” he says. Oh, right.
I dream of the books on my shelves being used as kindling by invading squatters. The dream has a peaceful finality to it that I actually like. In the dream, I am watching the squatters from a distance. Perhaps I am watching them on a screen. But, if that’s the case, then where am I, exactly? Where is my mind’s eye?
Sometimes when I wake up at three in the morning I scroll through the Before Times. A recent restaurant meal with a friend who told me some very bad news with a smile. A long farewell hug from an Italian friend who is in her nineties. Drinks with a man who has fallen in love with his wife for the second time. I run through their lives like an A.I. trying to learn its way into humanity. My mind rotates around and around, like an owl’s head. Rumination is the coin of my realm. Interiority breeds interiority. We are all living in a Rachel Cusk novel now.
During the early days of the New Truth, I want to grow out a beard that will be the envy of the local farmers. But before I do I go down to the village and get a passport photo taken for the After Times. They make you take off your glasses for passport photos, but I always forget: are you allowed to smile anymore? I think of life under the table and the laughter of my boy. The corners of my mouth crinkle. Koo-ka-ree-koo! ♦
More from This Collection