• #8 - Lea Carpenter

    Lea Carpenter


    March 18, 2020

    Capitol Hill, Washington, DC


    Well I hope we’re not too messianic / or a trifle too satanic—


    Only five days ago, in what can pretty accurately be called a prelapsarian time, my younger son, seven, complained his hands were itching. I looked. I could barely make out a series of small bumps covering his fingers and wrists, where the bumps became a little pinker, which is not to say, red. Which is not to say, alarming. Still, with the school holiday coming up (ha, as there is no more school now), I took him to the pediatrician thinking, better safe than sorry. He was clutching Bunny, an enormous if not totally frayed source of solace through his almost eight years on Earth. He wanted to know if Bunny could get “bumps,” too. I assured him no, bumps were not contagious and anyhow, Bunny was immune. Bunny floated above illness. When I called to tell the doctor we were coming in she asked, “Are you or your son sick?” And, “Are either of you exhibiting any symptoms of being ill?” A kind of preposterous question coming from a doctor, but we had already, even then, entered a new level of protocol, the one where no one wanted to touch anyone who was visibly ill. Don’t cough near me, it had become common to say. Or, Jesus Christ, don’t kiss me. Not if you’re ill. Not if you’re exhibiting symptoms of being ill. Not if you’re just off the train and haven’t washed your hands. And certainly not if you had come from Milan, either, which was possible in our case; my older son’s godmother is Milanese. And while what I had been hearing from her over those last days sounded like something out of a Philip K. Dick novel, that was only because I knew that this is America. Come on, spring break’s around the corner. Sunscreen and Netflix. Surely not a widening gyre. Ha.

    I was bitten by a boar / I was gouged and I was gored / but I pulled on through—

    The nurse took my son’s temperature. He didn’t have one. The nurse knows us and said I looked tired which I copped to, yes, tired, and yet grateful as soon we were going to be taking a trip defined by naps and rest. Defined by my mother’s calming presence, even as she had had this little heart thing last year, she had to be mindful now. She had to spend less time in high altitudes. In the presence of my boys though my mother’s spirits always lifted, she loved taking them “off my hands,” embracing them. Sometimes they still slept in her bed.

      The doctor took one look at my boy’s hands and asked how often he had been using “sanitizer.” The look on his face reminded me of looks I’d seen a thousand times on the faces of my older brother when the question was about abusing far harder things than hand sanitizer. I nodded at my boy to let him know it was fine, be honest. And so he said, “A lot,” then said he “only didn’t want to get sick.”

      We all only don’t want to get sick, now.

    But well I am just a monkey man / I’m glad you are a monkey woman too—


    My son’s hands had broken out because, frightened, he had “over-protected,” as the doctor put it, before she illustrated how to properly use Purell. In that moment I wasn’t thinking about a run on the market for hand sanitizer, which was then already happening. I wasn’t thinking about a run on the capital M market, either, which is happening as I write this. And I wasn’t thinking about the irony of over-protection placing you at risk. That time, that prelapsarian time, at the doctor with Bunny, before my son and I celebrated “not being sick” with milkshakes and before canceling spring break and the entire concept of seeing my mother, that time before we leaned into over-protection in order to mitigate risk and started thinking of clean hands as a patriotic duty. You see, being a mother doesn’t change when everything is heightened. You want your children near you. You want them safe. You want them clear and grateful, exemplifying the new rumbling under-hum of “the protocol,” of being a good citizen: optimism. Glass half fullKiss me on the lips, Jesus Christ, just please wash your mouth first.

    Well I hope we’re not too messianic—

    My friend in Milan sent clips of the Italian air force playing Pavarotti performing “Nessun Dorma,” a little like Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” out the choppers in Apocalypse Now, though in this instance these pilots were delivering hope: this too shall pass. My younger son now wears tiny white cotton gloves the doctor gave him so the hydrocortisone, for those bumps, “won’t slip.” I have tried to write a little each day these last days, listening to the one song I’d been playing on repeat long before this all started. The Stones’ “Monkey Man,” which I am liking now less for its lyrics or its meaning—which remain in dispute—but because I love the piano riff of the opening. It’s calming, a good entry to dreams—and fiction. And also since Scorsese used it in Goodfellas. And yet now the song seems the perfect anthem for our moment; the moment of something unexpectedly gone wrong.

      “Monkey Man” was the eighth track on Let It Bleed, two songs after “Midnight Rambler” and one before “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” I will probably still be listening to Let It Bleed in November when, God willing, we will be in an entirely new moment, new protocols, less fear. My little boy will no longer be wearing those gloves, though he will without question still be clutching Bunny and hopefully be able at that time to hug his grandmother. In November, we all will hopefully have learned from these experiences the practice of gratitude and the true protocols of mitigating fear and risk. Hopefully by that first Tuesday in November we all will be healthy, all more in a state of mind defined more by lines like:

    but if you try sometimes, you find / you get what you need

    And less so like lines like:

    war, children, it’s just a shot away.


    Adam, you know I use music to crack the hard problems.

    Take care,


    Lea Carpenter is a novelist and screenwriter; her new book, Ilium, is forthcoming from Knopf.

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