I write to you from around the corner in our Nashville neighborhood. Some kind of hand sanitizer (possibly homemade) in “Garden Bunny” dispensers has been placed near each elevator door in my building and although it is not Purell it has a handwritten label that says “Purell,” the way tissue is called “Kleenex” and cola is called “Coke.” So I do believe that this new coronavirus has forever secured Purell’s place in our language. My water heater went out last night—“it’s busted,” the plumber announced this morning, and he now has a team of men to help him drain the thing, replace it, and shove a new one back into the tiny kitchen closet where it sits jammed next to that doll-size washing machine, which you may recall. So I’m already cheating a bit on the social distancing thing. I’m in my study and hearing the workers sigh and groan, so perhaps things are not going well. There is some clanking and the burning smell of soldering. They cannot work remotely. And I cannot wash my hands without hot water. So life goes on despite all the warnings. I have also learned from the plumbers how toxic the municipal tap water is just in ordinary times: they all drink bottled water and have for many years, knowing what they know.
So knowledge is not power, knowledge is dread, as Ben Marcus wrote in his perfectly titled story “Stay Down and Take It.”
I had thought I might enjoy this seclusion—is it not a bumpy, booby-trapped version of a writer’s paradise? I thought I might enjoy “teaching remotely.” “I’ve always taught remotely,” said one of my colleagues. But a small amount of muttering to oneself can take hold and one can miss the students’ faces. Could we meet at your apartment? the graduate students asked. I replied, Only if we can keep six feet apart, says the administration, which means I would have to live in a park. Which given the stock market collapse is likely to happen soon so I will send word when it does and I hope you will come visit.
I am going to go out to dinner tomorrow if a restaurant can be found. One has to resist lockdowns a little bit. Though going out to dinner here is not yet off limits. In the story “Carried Away” (which I am remotely, that is, sort of, and also at a distance, teaching) Munro’s main character is a librarian who keeps the library open during the 1918 Spanish influenza. This is considered brave though the real reason she does it is that she is hoping a soldier she is smitten with will drop by. Corpses are carried down the street beneath her window (the title functions on many levels) and no one accuses her of recklessness. She does not wear a mask (though many in 1918 did). Risk is the very stuff of life and love—but Munro’s story sees things whole and dramatizes recklessness in both its harmless and deadly incarnations.
Still I am going out to dinner.
Like so many people, I go from hoping I’ll just get the virus and be done with it, sporting my herd immunity in the name of public health, to thinking maybe I had the virus already in January, to fearing I may be coming down with it. I’m on the edge of a bad demographic or really right in it, depending on how you want to look at things. But my grandmother survived the 1918 flu and I survived the 2009 one.
So to help out a restaurant I am going out to dinner. Or maybe getting take-out.