Notes from The Edge:
The Chronicles of my Social Distancing amid the 2020 Coronavirus Pandemic
Friday, March 13th
[dropcap]M[/dropcap]y 2:00 Rhetoric and Research is the shortest class ever. I return their graded research proposals and, before shooing them out into ever unstable reality, wish them luck and health. If I have it my way, I won’t see Terre Haute for a month and it will not be a day longer than a month. But, who knows. Amid the Coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic, nothing seems a sure thing.
I fold my laptop closed. That plastic coupling when screen accepts keyboard, the kiss that signifies work is done, at least for the moment. I have more pressing issues than Indiana State University right now. Five living, breathing issues an hour to the east. I leave the classroom and wash my hands, counting 1 Mississippi, 2 Mississippi, … all the way to 20, like I’m waiting to rush the quarterback in a sandlot football game. This is the eleventh time I’ve done this since waking up.
Campus is a ghost town at 3:00 and has been all day. Five students openly skipped my Creative Writing exam earlier that day, all citing the anxiety of being in a group of people in one room. I let it slide and they’ll reckon with the exam somewhere over the rainbow.
My car is one of a handful left in a lot of roughly 300 spaces. My first stop is an important one: Big Red Liquors on Wabash, just east of 25th Street. If the government is going to shut down all non-essential businesses, I’ve got but a few opportunities to grab necessities. My man, Travis, Big Red’s manager, stocks me up with Lagunitas Daytime (best low carb beer if you’re on Keto) and a bottle of Four Roses. As a former drummer on cruise ships, Travis laments old friends he’s talked to, stuck on ships docked in quarantine, or simply on floating tombs, waiting for a port to let them in. He’s also heard Trump will announce relief for small businesses, like his. It’s still a Friday, and we all seem to be looking for anything to take the edge off. I feel a little drinking is in order.
Forty miles later, I’m rolling into my driveway in Greencastle, just as my family pulls in from four different school pickups. Like ISU and so many others, Greencastle has closed school for the same foreseeable future, but a nagging feeling tells me it’ll be longer. The kids pour out of the van like it’s late May and they’re on some sort of extended vacation. I’m about five minutes from smashing that dream like a hammer.
I stop my high-schooler as he’s trying to mount his bike, headed to DePauw for some pick up soccer. “Not today, kid,” I say. He doesn’t have to respond. He just lets all his air out in one breath. He knows. And he knows me. I go in the house, wash my hands.
I gather my wife and the four kids around the dining room table. A three page list of rules, more like demands, sits in front of me. I tell them we’re going to take the self-quarantine/isolation/social-distancing guidelines laid out by the CDC and others seriously. I tell them that I will play the role of hardcore enforcer if necessary, and they know this is true.
I break down the basics: no going over to other people’s houses, no one who doesn’t live here comes in the house (I waive this restriction for my sister-in-law, a former ER nurse who lives two doors away, alone). There will be no non-essential trips to the store. Food is now a luxury, don’t waste it, or eat it out of boredom. All electronic schoolwork is to be done at the start of the day. And so on. All four of my children say they understand and shuffle off from the table, cursing me and my adulthood under their breath. I wash my hands.
I crack the first of six Lagunitas Daytimes I will consume this evening and fire up the grill for burgers. Burgers, what could be more American to eat at a time when I’m supposed to be doing my part for America? But the patriotic pat on the back sprains something in me. I can feel the collective dread lurking at the edge of the yard, in the shadows of trees. My mind does what it always does when I’m on the verge of an anxiety attack. It tries to convince itself of the worst, even if that is an act of illusion. Am I gonna be able to deal with this? Will aging parents make it through? Will we all go crazy? Are we irrevocably changed? With so many potential answers the world starts to slightly tilt.
I finish the burgers and head inside as the last flames of daylight shrink to smolder behind a column of clouds. I wash my hands.
Things are generally jovial inside. We eat and have conversations about what to expect, what we might do while keeping our social distance. I plan to tackle the doorstop-sized The Overstory by Richard Powers and The Zero by Jess Walters. Lots of work to do for school. We might play golf as a group if the course stays open, which it plans to under strict new Coronavirus contingencies. We can all catch up on some sleep. We clean up dinner like any other night. I wash my hands.
Later, as I’m finishing that sixth Lagunitas Daytime and scrolling through an endless list of CNN articles on the pandemic, my mind just starts to shut down. Too much thought for one day. Too much for one year, really. Too dense, too jagged. I put the phone down, pick up my book, and fall asleep reading about two lovers, who eventually marry in secret and plant a tree in their yard every anniversary, until they find out they cannot have a baby. Then things fall apart.
The place is filled to the seams and employees wander the aisles droning apocalyptic chants: “Three cans of green beans per purchase, no more.” “Please leave items for others to purchase.” “Please buy responsibly, realistically.” The panic is palpable.
Saturday, Mach 14th
Saturday comes with a slight headache, from Lagunitas Daytime, I’m sure, and not an early symptom of the virus. At least this is what I tell myself and I promise myself to test this theory by not drinking any Daytimes today, but this plan will evaporate by mid-afternoon when the headache disappears.
By mid-morning, we are in full go mode, the day’s two major tasks set out the night before. Task one: try to recover as much money as we can from hotels, airlines, and train companies from our now-aborted Spring Break trip to Quebec. We sheepishly decided during the previous week that it was too risky, too irresponsible. What if we got stuck on the other side of the border? What if we had to quarantine for two weeks upon return? The outbreaks in Canada seemed lesser than here, so perhaps they would get worse there soon.
My wife sets up her war room on the kitchen counter, laptop out, phone in one hand, the other working furious notes on paper. A drop of the pen, a tuck of the phone, and both hands converge on the keyboard, a master class in efficiency and multi-tasking. I admire my wife’s dogged determination, her refusal to walk away from negotiations until she’s satisfied, and the killer instinct she employs when she sees what she wants. These attributes are often my worst enemies in domestic disagreements, but here, over the phone with a hotel manager, they are the equivalent of mortar shells and she commands our barrage. I hear the thick, poutine-drenched French accent of the Quebecois hotelier concede. Over the course of the morning, she’s successful on most fronts, taking a stalemate or two (airline credit instead of full refund), but no outright defeats. While she works the screens and phone, I try to keep the kids occupied. I wash my hands roughly six times that morning.
Task two: get groceries. My wife also volunteers to head to the store and I don’t balk at letting her. We went earlier in the week and stocked up for two weeks, but we noticed some missed items and had second thoughts about our initial haul, if it would hold up if we were stuck in longer. It takes her almost three hours to navigate the Kroger two blocks away, because the place is insanity. All lot spaces are taken and people are creating their own. The place is filled to the seams and employees wander the aisles droning apocalyptic chants: “Three cans of green beans per purchase, no more.” “Please leave items for others to purchase.” “Please buy responsibly, realistically.” The panic is palpable. She gets enough to extend our self-exile a few more weeks. We unload the choked van, stock the food away, and wash our hands.
Over the ever-present CNN, glowing from the kitchen TV, comes a message from Trump’s toady, former Governor of Indiana, current Vice-President, and silver-haired/silver-tongued charlatan: Mike Pence. His message punches me in the gut. The 30 day travel restrictions on Europe, currently applicable to 26 countries, mostly in the Schengen Zone, are now expanded to include the UK and Ireland. In mid-May, I have a golf-trip-of-a-lifetime planned in Ireland. That is now very much in doubt. I crack my first Lagunitas Daytime. I wash my hands.
I spend the evening playing five different board games with my family. My sister-in-law arrives and joins in. We work a jigsaw puzzle depicting classic children’s books, from Curious George to Through the Looking Glass. I drink four more Lagunitas and wash my hands in equal measure. We end the night with a screening of Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic, With Steve Zissou. I fall asleep midway, a Portuguese version of Bowie’s “Life on Mars” lilting in my ears as the day goes black.
The kids pour out of the van like it’s late May and they’re on some sort of extended vacation. I’m about five minutes from smashing that dream like a hammer.
Sunday, March 15th
I sleep almost until 10:00, longer than I have since who knows when. Just in time for church, I think. But, I have forgotten. The church is closed. The clergy have rigged up a streaming version of a worship service, viewable during the regular time we would have met in person. My wife fires it up on the smart TV in the living room and I half watch it while reading Powers. The feed is wrought with issues, probably the result of it being all of our first efforts at this. The image of my pastor, guitar slung over his shoulder in front of an empty sanctuary, begins and ends in fits and starts. Halfway through, we turn it off and listen to the radio version of the sermon, a mashup of scripture and Coronavirus.
After virtual church, I realize I haven’t washed my hands in a couple of hours, so I count to 40 this time, for luck. It’s lunchtime, but for all the food in the house I just don’t find myself hungry at the moment, the visions of Jesus’s loving hand and wrathful, Old Testament God still wresting for control of how I see the virus. And, only a few days in to the social-distancing experiment, the virus is about all I can see.
I envision my Mother, who will leave her home tomorrow to travel to Danville, to Hendricks Reginal Hospital, for cataract surgery. Her doctor did not recommend she reschedule, despite the virus. I’m praying she gets in, gets out, and gets home uncontaminated. I envision my father driving her to the hospital. His own immune system is a compromised framework, the handiwork of Diabetes. I cannot volunteer to take them. It would be too risky. I’m around thousands of coughing mouths every day at ISU. I cannot be the instrument of their demise. I wash my hands.
I spend the majority of Sunday afternoon and evening in the lush boughs of Powers. The Overstory is epic in scope and its focus on trees makes me notice them more. That afternoon, I twice find myself staring out the window at a huge oak in my neighbor’s yard. Each time feels like hours but lasts only minutes. My young daughter wants to color, which does not mean coloring books. Rather, we make original compositions on blank paper. She draws a psychedelic landscape of morphing, abstract forms. I draw the trunks of mighty redwoods.
That evening, we dine on blackened chicken thighs and roasted vegetables (everything not frozen has to go first). We play more games and, despite my fair warning, I assert my dominance once again at Trivial Pursuit. I love that my sons never end their quest to usurp my trivial crown. Tonight, we head to bed early, unsure of what e-learning assignments await the kids. I have an Everest of work ahead to prepare my in-person classes to go fully on-line, and my wife has the impossible task of calming the market-addled fears of her clients and their IRAs. I do not envy her at all. As I head up the stairs, I realize how exhausted I am. Not physically, but the mental wave of these first few days is already eroding the levee that keeps my primal fears at bay. I like to keep these fears far out to sea, where I can still see them, but they drift harmlessly on the horizon. Tonight, they’re coming over the lip. Only in my sleep do I feel somewhat detached from this new reality. For now. As I sleep, a text message from a dear friend that I will not see until the morning appears on my phone. The message is but one sentence: “I think all of this shit sucks!”
Patrick Barcus holds an MFA from Butler University and teaches writing at Indiana State University. He’s the front-man for the local band, Saturday Shoes, and also happens to be one hell of a poet.