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THE PANDEMIC BLUES





Everyone around here is sluggish. The young woman who checks my purchases off the conveyor belt dabs her eyes and stifles a yawn. She keeps shaking herself awake as the manager looks on behind me. A car in front of me slowly drifts to the rumble strip and pulls back, with a face gazing at me through the rear view mirror. I stay back a few paces more than I usually do. I watch an old man fall asleep on the back of his pickup truck. He sits in a director's chair and cradles a large insulated mug on his lap. He's huge, with a belly that fills his lap and threatens to cascade down his bloated legs. He has been watching the parade on the 4th of July, and seems bored with the old fire engines going by honking their horns. He regards me briefly with eyes I had seen once in a zoo, sleepy, indifferent eyes belonging to an old slavering alligator. It has rained here every day for a week and even the rain seems to be falling asleep as it patters on the soggy leaves.

It's as if the pandemic had been one long jag of insomnia in which everyone lay there in bed dreading the thought of being infected with the virus. Hard to dream or to roll back into a peaceful doze when all you heard on the TV was the threat of a third wave of Covid, or the need for another shot after your two Pfizers or Modernas. So the Earth lumbers around in its orbit, a solar tour bus freighted with every variation of breath and heart beat, with its flabby seas whipping up in frothy curls and lapping ever deeper onto the shorelines. The gray skies are also signs of cosmic inertia, as the crows swing down and mosey along the treetops looking for some vague reason to land. Ideas trickle down into consciousness and fade again, half shaped. The pandemic has sapped all the loose energy and let it drift like dust motes in the lone beam of sunlight sizzling on the carpet.

I remember those dark days when my mother was down with lobar pneumonia. I caught a glimpse of her sunken face through a crack in the bedroom door. Her skin was the color of putty, and her lips had turned blue. Her eyes may have detected me staring at her and she raised a hand to alert my father to shut the door. It was the last I would see her, I thought. I hung around the darkened hallway for an hour and went out to play in the back alley. The sky was made up of slag heaps and piles of loose soot. I heard muffled cries from a neighbor's house. It was the end of the world. Mothers are immortal if you're seven years old. If they start to die you are ripped free of the world and sent off to drift among the fluttering sycamore leavers in the park. You have no consolation. My father was not a generous or sensitive man, and had no use for kids. So the link to any sort of paradise was being sheared away by his impassive stare at the dinner table as we ate in silence.

Then she began to eat clear broth and to sip tea, and to nibble on a cookie. She even tried to speak once, and I heard her voice for the first time in weeks. She was the embodiment of surrender, the emotion suddenly grew wrists and limp hair and sunken eyes. Her mouth moved as if chewing on the few words she could think of. When I heard her laugh through the open door, I knew we were kneeling in Lazarus' tomb, that the sun was breaking through the bedroom window and beginning to warm the pair of slippers at the side of her bed. She would make it downstairs one morning in her quilted housecoat, and sit groggily at the table with her soft-boiled egg and toast, her cup of Lipton's tea. She would look up and let me caress her shoulder as she sat in a stony silence beside me. But she was alive, and she had suddenly swallowed the angel that had almost escaped with her last breath.

I remember nodding off in an overheated classroom one afternoon in late fall. The tall windows of the room were filled with zinc light. We were cutting up construction paper in the shape of pumpkins and witches, to be taped to the windowpanes the next day. We had pots of glue on our desks and the teacher was reading a book at her desk. The heat lulled me ever deeper toward the throes of a nap. The murmuring of the wind against the windows was like someone stroking my hair. The weight of boredom had been growing over me for more than an hour and I felt my head slew around and my eyes roll half way up into the pale red lids of my eyes. Just then a chair scraped on the boards and Mrs. Vaughan, with her stiff gray hair and her long fingernails, strode down to my desk, turned her ring around and hit my spine with a sharp, deadly whack. I was dragged to the gloomy cloakroom to sit for the rest of the hour, while the others whispered and continued squeezing the little blunt scissors to make goblins and half moons.

The cloakroom smelled of slush and forgotten memories. The rubber boots dripped little pools of melted ice. The umbrellas were hanging on hooks above me, ready to swell into black shadows over the heads of my liberated friends. The rain was beginning to fall in tiny, lethargic pulses that would slowly thicken and speed up like a machine that finally achieved momentum. Maybe it was my heart beginning to beat with anxiety as I heard the downstairs bell clanging at three o'clock. Shuffle of feet, rising voices, a scolding sound warning them not to shout. The door opening to let in the thin, dreary twilight of the classroom, as coats were pulled down, boots squeezed into, umbrellas clacking and fluffing on the way out to the corridor. I sat there cramped onto a footstool, afraid to uncross my ankles lest the teacher find me insolent. But she let me go, and looked down at me as if I were a stray dog that had crept into her midst.

On the way home, I bought two cents worth of red suckers and placed them carefully on my tongue. They were my consolation for the tedium I had endured. The old man knew me and pulled down a strand of licorice and threw it into a tiny bag for me take along. He seemed to think I had some human traits worth forgiving. So off I went, slowly at first, dodging the big splotches of rain as I smelled the bitter ozone from a clap of thunder.

At home, in the living room, on the patterned carpet stood my mother ironing my father's shirt. She gazed down at me and said my sandwich was ready. I poured out some milk and sat at the Formica table nibbling on the crust. She came in and hugged me against her and said the teacher had called. She just wanted me to know you might come home late. She made you sit in the cloakroom again, she said. You were falling asleep. I told her you hadn't eaten breakfast and that you would be fine tomorrow. Then she hugged me again and went back to ironing the voluminous white shirt that hung limply over her board. The smell of steam rose to my nostrils as I sat there. I could hear the rain tapping its fingertips on the rain gutter, and dribbling its little mercury tears down the window panes. The darkness crept quietly up the brick walls and hung from the sills. There was nothing one could do in such a moment but surrender to the winter's fatigue, to its inability to grow a single flower out of the cracked asphalt of the alley. Earth was asleep, and the rain was heaven's way of saying that night was coming and sleep would round off our day.

The pandemic taught me to endure these sieges of torpor and empty trances. Without boredom, you had no means of understanding the anemia that seized the blood in your arms and pinned you to the chair. Your grim little sandwich lay there on a cold plate, and the milk, cold and chalky, was tasteless on your tongue. But you were sturdily built and your eyes were searching for any kind of danger to pursue, no matter how trivial and hidden in a corner. I would survive and grow stronger, I told myself. I would be spared the dead light that was beginning to fill the kitchen where I sat, with the sandwich held tentatively in my left hand.

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