• #10 - Ben Fountain

    Ben Fountain


    March 16, 2020

    Hello, whoever you are:

    Spring in Dallas (though it was never really winter), which means a mockingbird on every branch beating you senseless with streams of bird babble that bring to mind a certain president’s Twitter feed, pollen (tree milt?) spewing forth in plague quantities, weeds sprouting underfoot like dragon’s teeth, fat rich guys blasting around on high-dollar Harleys, and the first mosquito of the year smashed flat on arrival. An itchy, twitchy season even in the best of times, a season of sneezing, wheezing, funny tickles in the throat. I live in a state where one in five residents has no health insurance, 40% of workers have no paid sick leave, and state government is so careless of the general welfare that Texas Child Protective Services—the agency charged with rescuing imperiled children, for Christ’s sake—has been so corrupt, so incompetent, so basically bad for so long that in recent months a federal judge began fining the state $50,000 a day. Here the social safety net is more like a tightrope walk; every tickle in the throat might be a harbinger of disaster.

      But, hey, gas is cheap! Today I saw a buck seventy-nine at the pump, great, the one thing we have a lot of we don’t need because nobody’s going anywhere. Our first WTF? moment came several weeks ago when Austin cancelled SXSW. Until then we’d been tooling along on cruise control, and, speaking of cruises, swearing we’d never go on one of those. SXSW was Texas’s wake-up call, but for most of the state it’s been a slow roll to full awareness and the cascading closures of the past few days. Now we’re shutting it all down: schools, museums, theaters, sports, libraries, bars and restaurants, as well as the fabled Greenville Avenue St. Patrick’s Day Parade, the annual drunk where the Men’s Lawn Chair Drill Team made its indelible debut several centuries ago. Lately I’ve been thinking about my grandfather, who as a teenager enlisted in the Navy during World War I, and ended up assigned to hospital duty in Norfolk when the Spanish flu hit. Years later my dad asked him, How did you survive? Granddad: I took a couple of swigs of Kaopectate every morning, that kept things moving.

      Spanish flu could do this: you got up in the morning and reported for duty, started feeling lousy around lunchtime, and died that night. Indications are COVID-19 could have approximately the same mortality rate as Spanish flu, but it’s early days yet; early days and we’re already so far behind the curve. Intaking the news it’s quite normal to feel enraged and heartsick at the same time, and here’s another thing I think about, the lyric in Dylan’s “Tombstone Blues” where the commander-in-chief cries, “The sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken!” Weekly, daily, hourly Trump’s been telling us the sun is chicken, and a Monmouth Poll reported today that 49% of Arizona respondents “approved” of the President’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, while 43% “disapproved.” For five years now the country has been in a kind of spell or trance in which Trump’s reality is our reality, a situation that corporate media has been all too eager to abet, and profit from. Even those of us who reject Trump with every molecule of our heads and hearts are living inside Trump world; even those of us who know damn well the sun’s not chicken.

      Someday the spell will break, the trance shatter; reality is stronger even than presidents. Maybe this is where morality starts, with basic reality connect. Seeing the world for what it is. Acting and speaking on the basis of that reality, those facts. By this standard the current president is a moral monster, while here in Texas 26 years of morally bankrupt “conservative” rule have put a critical mass of the state’s citizens on the cusp of disaster. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” the martyr King once told us. Morality, justice, we have far too little of those, far too much of the kind of toxic fantasizing that kills people, destroys families, ruins communities. When the spell breaks, the trance shatters—when at last we realize we’ve been sold a bill of goods—there’s gonna be hell to pay.

      These are days of great suspense. What will our world look like in two weeks? A month? Late the past few nights a band of rodents has been dancing up a storm on my roof, and this evening, with the windows open to the cooling air, I heard the drrrrrr-oooh of a screech owl on the hunt. You know how a Texas drought ends? Not gently. It’s always a flood.

    Yours, truly.

    Ben Fountain

    In lieu of payment, our friends and contributors to the Corona Correspondences are dedicating donations to nonprofits and independent businesses in their communities. Fountain’s contribution will be directed to the Texas Tenants Union.

    Ben Fountain lives in Texas. His third book, Beautiful Country Burn Again, is available from Ecco/HarperCollins.

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