Home > Blog > A Viral Exchange, under Lockdown
Charles Bardes and Tom Sleigh
Published: Tue Mar 31 2020
A Viral Exchange, under Lockdown


Dear Tom,

You were speaking of Covid and prior times of pestilence. I thought first of the Iliad, which opens as sickness ravages the Greek armies, a curse brought down by the blasphemed priest of Apollo. The whole of the Western literary canon begins in disease.

(Well, if we’re to believe Genesis, the whole of postlapsarian human history begins with a curse. Maybe Creation itself.)

Oedipus Rex takes place during a mortal epidemic, referencing the Plague of Athens from the previous year. Inner and outer devastation mirror each other—blasphemy again—and yet the blinded hero stumbles forward with a certain resolute nobility.

Boccaccio frames his Decameron in a place of refuge, when ten youth flee Florence, stricken by the Black Death. Fiction—especially his—counterbalances death. Chaucer’s pilgrims ride to Canterbury to be healed, seeking the holy blissful martyr, that them hath holpen when that they were sick. The Tudors had their Sweating Sickness, and Defoe his own plague years. Camus. Thom Gunn and The Man with Night Sweats.

—Chuck

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Dear Chuck,

I’m out walking every morning, and then I come back and work . . . reading Adam Nicholson’s _The Making of Poetr_y about Coleridge and the Wordsworths and their circle in the year 1798, when together they wrote most of the poems collected in Lyrical Ballads. The countryside was full of people who were close to starvation. There were no doctors, or doctors in the way we know. You depended on your neighbors or you starved to death. Isolated hovels dotted the countryside, and when fevers broke out, all anyone could hope was that they didn’t spread across the fields—their version of “self-quarantine”—except there was no choice in the matter, you either pulled through the fever or you didn’t.

Several years ago, I was at Dadaab refugee camp writing about a famine in East Africa, and I remember a woman with two children sitting for hours in the sun in front of the processing offices. She held the smaller child on her lap and stared fixedly in front of her. Her children were silent, too hungry and exhausted to be fidgety. They watched from the sun the long line of people being given quick medical exams. A nurse listened to your lungs, looked down your throat, and took your pulse. Children were given a cocktail of vitamins in a little paper cup. Cholera had broken out periodically in the camp, but the calculus of surviving there, as opposed to making it on your own, made the camp the better bet. (In fact, the only bet: there wasn’t anything but bush around the camp, so all you could do was hope to trade for food on the thriving black market that had sprung up on the outskirts.) The idea that our emergency rooms and ICU wards are going to be overrun starkly illuminates the difference between a shortage of ventilators and a complete lack of every conceivable form of infrastructure. The poverty and desperation at Dadaab would have been familiar sights to Coleridge and Wordsworth.

Even for a lockdown Saturday, the streets are comparatively empty today. There are people out walking their dogs, mainly small dogs, and mothers pushing their kids in strollers. One father took his kid to the playground at the elementary school on Pacific a couple of blocks from me. The kid was climbing up the little steps to the slide and sliding down, over and over, until he upended himself and landed face-first. Tears, screams, then right back at it.

—Tom

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Hey Tom,

I’m working from home, on advice of the medical center, staying in touch with patients via email, phone, and occasional telemedicine visit, fielding 30 to 40 a day. Many of the patients I communicate with do seem to have Covid, and nearly all of them have a mild course that resolves on its own. Some are calling to inquire about prevention. A few—one on immunosuppressive medication, another with chronic asthma—needed antibiotic to cover the possibility that a bacterial infection had set in on top of the viral inflammation. None of the several hundred people I’ve talked with needed testing, ER evaluation, or hospitalization. Almost everyone has been very amenable to self-isolation and other protective measures.

So far.

A few with preexisting anxiety have called more than the others, as occurred during the post-9/11 anthrax scare. Indeed, a lot of Covid-19 recalls 9/11 in New York: increased courtesy in public places, a sense of shared experience, “we’re in this together,” and above all, the quiet.

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Chuck,

Going into stores is a slapstick affair of trying not to touch the door, nerving yourself to pick up the yogurt container, being frozen for an anxious second as you calculate the risk of taking off your gloves to pick up the yogurt and then squirting your hands with hand sanitizer if you’re lucky enough to have some, or telling yourself that even though your gloves have touched a door, keypad, an iron railing, and are therefore likely to be infected, it’s safer than exposing your naked hands which, should they touch the container unprotected, will assuredly be infected.

And all this is made more fraught by the fact that I’m indeed part of “the high-risk group”—one of the doomed seniors who are dogsbodies anyway, incipient worm meat— because of my lungs, and the fact that I’m currently on two years of antibiotics (my second two-year course in six years) to keep mycobacteria—bacteria that exist everywhere and are impossible to avoid—from cavitating my lungs as badly as TB until I need an oxygen machine, then a ventilator. Or until you say to the world as my Aunt Mona once said to me, taking one drag on her Lucky, then taking a drag of oxygen from her plastic mask, all the while indifferent to the risk of blowing up herself and her nephew: Don’t interfere with my little pleasures.

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There are those, fearful, who infect others with their fear, as surely as with any microbe.

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Here’s the hand you’re dealt: the precautions seem to have been written for people who live in the Hamptons. They have separate bathrooms, separate bedrooms, somehow they’ve been able to procure face masks and plastic gloves and hand sanitizer and they can afford grocery delivery. They have private gyms where they work out every morning, or would if they wanted to. The last time I went to my local YMCA gym a mere ten days ago, I bumped elbows with a friend, a regular like me, an old Vietnam Vet who walks with a cane but is incredibly strong. We joked about our aches and pains, then got to work on our separate machines in different parts of the gym. As in a bad allegory I was Age Climbing Nowhere, while next to me a young man, rippling with muscle, was Youth Running Nowhere. I coughed to clear my throat and Youth Running Nowhere began screaming, Cover Your Mouth, Cover Your Mouth, Cover Your Mouth_! _

Such nerves are natural. No one likes an old fool so careless and mindless that he’s going to cut you off in “the flower of youth.” Except the old fool stops the muscle-bound ephebe and tells him on the way out that it’s cool, that he has a lung disease, etc. Youth Running Nowhere is embarrassed, smiles, and walks out without apologizing, maybe ashamed, but probably not. The whole incident is trivial until you put it under the microscope. Then it’s just normal human hatred, paranoia, fear—two animals trying to behave civilly, but not quite managing the ritual with much grace. At least there were wan smiles at the end.

All this occurs under the heading of Death, and the sub-heading, Death by Chance: I’m a lousy poker player, yet I know how to keep a straight face, to not make obvious tells. But when it’s time to call, my hand is inevitably a pair of fours—which is when Sarah, whom I live with, announces that she’s ill.

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Tom,

It’s the nature of epidemics that they come from elsewhere. Epidemics occur when a population is exposed to a microbe it hasn’t seen before, against which there is little or no immunity—and which is therefore foreign by definition. Bubonic plague entered Europe from Asia, measles entered North America from Europe, Ebola entered America from West Africa, etc. This phenomenon sets the stage for rampant xenophobia. The President of the United States refers to Covid-19 as “the Chinese virus,” and urbanites avoid their Chinese American neighbors. A passerby spits on a young woman and shouts to a passing bus, Run her over!

In an epidemic of 1900, Honolulu’s Chinatown was burnt to ashes.

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Chuck,

I walked about a mile to the Gowanus Expressway, the supremely ugly highway that runs along the East River, and performed what I could remember of my Yang-style Tai Chi in the playground next to the Expressway. My favorite two moves are Cloud Hands, in which you move your hands up from your waist across your face one hand at a time, as if a cloud were passing in front of the sun, the right moving clockwise, the left counter-clockwise, while your feet move laterally, slow step by step; and then Boxing the Ears of the Tiger: your two fists come up from your sides over your head and in a kind of quick pincer move, hit the tiger on both ears. Echoing off the expressway’s open-sided tunnel, droning engine surf induces a meditative state I couldn’t reach by zazen.

Rome burns while I try to concentrate on pure being: frivolous? Harmless? Or a grotesque misunderstanding of what being is, and how Rome is even when it’s burning?

Sarah coughs, I cough, doctors and nurses die:

“Isn’t it funny, Karamazov? All this grief, and pancakes afterwards.”

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The aged fantasize about death from Covid. A ninety-year-old woman writes from her retirement community, I guess it’s time to pay for my cremation. A childhood friend has phoned her, It’s time to say goodbye. Both are uninfected and basically healthy. Both have seen husbands and beloved others devastated by cancer, so death by Covid seems not only timely but amiable, even welcome.

Pneumonia was once called the old man’s friend. It was supposed to be a gentle, quick passage into the next world. Maybe we should ask the old man as he gasps for breath.

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At first Sarah thought: just a cold—no fever, no dry cough, no aches per se. But then the fever started, albeit low grade; and then the cough, a hard, no-nonsense rasp magnified by my earbud’s microphone to a feedback screech. We talk only on the phone now or lean out from behind the door we keep partially closed between us, doing the new dance, the Self-Quarantine Shuffle. I’m almost fully resigned to getting the disease. The “almost” is the worst of it. But for now, I try to keep my concern focused squarely on Sarah. She can’t get tested because she’s not sick enough, and there aren’t enough tests to go around—besides, if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, what would testing tell us that we don’t already know?

Cut to nightmare scenario of ventilator, Sarah sick in one isolation ward, me in another, while our daughter, Hannah, waits for news.

Think of the Fusco family, mother, oldest son, fourth oldest son, and oldest daughter—all dead.

But my dread for Sarah and Hannah, and then for myself, increases to the point where it starts to seem ludicrously self-important: yet the dread persists. I can’t deny anticipating the worst as a way of warding off the worst.

Fight? Flight? Freeze in Fate’s headlights?

But fight who? Run where?

And as for Fate, there’s just the monotonously flashing lights of the ambulance.

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Dear Tom,

When we were boys, we intoned

The ants go marching one by one, hurrah, hurrah

The ants go marching one by one, hurrah, hurrah

The ants go marching one by one,

The little one stops to suck his thumb,

And we all go marching down, to the grave,

To get out of the rain (dum dum dum dum dum dum dum)

The ants go marching two by two . . .

singing it to the tune of the Civil War song “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again”—written as a glimmer of hope in that mortal bloody catastrophe. Though I read that the tune, like “The Star Spangled Banner,” was originally a drinking song.

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Chuck,

I admit to finding it all a little absurd; and as these unceasing precautions and bulletins begin to take hold, inevitably I find myself asking: Do I really want to live to be seventy? eighty? ninety? I’ve spent most of my life living with a “potentially life-threatening” blood disease, until I feel as if I’m the oldest living man who never did die of what he was certain he would die of. No matter that my blood disease, which nearly killed me three times in my thirties, has a companion illness in my lungs now: these things have become tropes, little myths and metaphors that, in my case anyway, prove Sontag wrong. It’s much easier to live with a metaphor than a constant cough or a transfusion bag—especially when the cough and the bag are making you feel, This is it, the Big D.

So: I admit my partiality to all these little tricks I play on my mind as I calculate the odds of making it through the next few months without losing my perspective to what will no doubt emerge as a new category of paranoia—hygiemania—a manic condition in which thousands of New Yorkers crack up from all the minute calculations about whether to touch or not to touch . . . Yes, these little tricks will become the equivalent of medieval Christian philosophy, in which the ultimate answer is known: YOU WILL GET SICK, only now you need to trace to its root cause the essentia of how you know: is it God’s grace extending itself to make you aware of your innate sickliness, or is it your innate sickliness manifesting itself to the repair of God’s beneficence? Except in this case it boils down to whether there will be an ICU bed when you need one.

Probably not.

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Tom,

Marcus Aurelius, writing as epidemic (perhaps measles or smallpox) ravaged his empire, wrote, It were indeed more happy and comfortable, for a man to depart out of this world, having lived all his life long clear from all falsehood, dissimulation, voluptuousness, and pride. But if this cannot be, yet it is some comfort for a man joyfully to depart as weary, and out of love with those, rather than to desire to live, and to continue long in those wicked courses. Hath not experience taught thee to fly from the plague? For a far greater plague is the corruption of the mind, than any certain change and distemper of the common air can be. (Meditations, Book IX).

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Hey Chuck,

All these careful calculations of hand sanitizing and hand washing and Lysol and Clorox wipes, and the harbinger of the ambulance that seems to have permanently parked itself, lights flashing, in front of the Gowanus Houses, begins to have a fated quality about it. Welcome to Plague Town. Here in Plague Town, our laureates are Camus, Boccaccio, Defoe, Thucydides, Jonson, and the Merck Manual. As you thumb through the pages, everyone around you is getting sick or wondering if they’re sick.

Walking on the street, we eye each other with active suspicion. A friend takes a run on a narrow path and meets two other runners running together headed the opposite direction, but keeping six feet apart. There’s no place else to go, so my friend threads the needle: as he passes between them, the other two runners mutter simultaneously, “Asshole.”

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Covid and selfishness.

Selfishness in doctors:

— ordering tests and prescriptions without concern for the common weal
— squirreling away masks and gloves for themselves and their families
— squandering resources
— refusing to see patients or to answer their phone calls
— disseminating misinformation

Selfishness in patients:

— demanding services, like tests and prescriptions, without concern for the common weal
— hoarding
— disseminating misinformation
— infecting others with fear

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I can hear Sarah walking on the other side of the wall, her footsteps moving slowly, as if she were lost, moving tentatively in the dark a few steps, standing still, then walking past where I’m listening, her footsteps slowly going silent in the ambient noise of the refrigerator and the radiator gurgling and ticking. I hear something like muffled laughter and one half of a conversation, so I put my ear to the wall to see if I can hear whether she’s talking to our daughter, Hannah. But no, she’s not talking, she’s coughing. Then all I hear are low muffled steps, silence, a few more steps—silence.

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Cyprian of Carthage, a bishop and later a saint, saw the third-century epidemic that swept through the Roman world as occasion for forbearance, hope for the life to come, and the dawn of the Final Days.

Barbara, sitting across from me at breakfast, says, “Chukker, you’re intellectualizing.”

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Sometimes rather than using Verizon, Sarah and I FaceTime. Just last night we discovered how to use the animojis that you can superimpose on your face, a kind of animal avatar, so that as you talk or laugh or smile, your fox face, let’s say, breaks into a smile when your human face smiles, your fox eyes blink or widen or narrow when your human ones do.

In a thirteenth-century Hebrew Bible, on the last page of the illuminated codex, is a picture of the messianic banquet of the righteous on the last day. On the menu are Leviathan and Behemoth—yes, the blessed are feasting on the monsters. What is disturbing and comic and alien and strangely touching is that the blessed have their own medieval version of animojis: they all have animal heads—and on their heads are golden crowns. There are the animals you’d expect—an eagle’s hooked beak, the red head of an ox, a lion’s head—but also a leopard; an ass, its long ears flopping under its crown; and a monkey playing a kind of medieval fiddle called a vielle. All are sumptuously dressed in tunics and long flowing cloaks, and one lifts a wine cup to its lips.

Giorgio Agamben speculates that these theriocephalous representatives of the saved are a sign of the ultimate reconciliation between our human and animal natures. Other commentators think that Agamben has skipped a step in assuming that animals and human beings are commensurate. To these commentators, animals exist in their own independent worlds—private little “Umwelts,” as Jacob von Uexküll, the father of biosemiotics, called them—each animal at home in its own sufficient little world of signs, even if the only sign that makes your world, if you’re a tick, say, is the odor of butyric acid wafting from the flesh of some animal or human passing by, as you let yourself get brushed off a leaf or a piece of compass grass by the creature, whose leg you’re now crawling up up up to its warm dark crotch.

Consciousness is universal, says von Uexküll, a symphony of mind in which every creature is playing its own instrument in its own unique key and time signature that somehow harmonizes with all the others.

But from the point of view of our own species, is Covid-19 the rumble of the kettledrum just before the curtain comes down? Or just the cuckoo whistle in Strauss’s “Cuckoo Polka?”

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Tom,

After 9/11, a few physicians fled the city, but most of us felt that we should stand by our posts—even though we often had little to do. Visits were cancelled, the computer system for outpatients was down, and survivors, of whom there were few, had not filled the hospitals. Now during Covid, many of us have been advised to work from home, especially those of us who are sixty years of age or older, or who have chronic medical conditions such as asthma or diabetes. Are we who work from home, and especially from our second homes in the countryside or shoreside, deserting our posts, or acting for the good of public health?

I haven’t left the electronic medical record system, email, or the phone in the last five hours, and the day is not yet half done.

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Chuck,

Keats never finished his medical studies, but at Guy’s Hospital in his work as a dresser (a jack-of-all-trades surgical assistant), he dressed wounds, handed out surgical implements in the operating theater, and might well have assisted in procuring recently dead bodies from what were called “resurrection men”—people who specialized in body snatching from London cemeteries and selling the corpse to a hospital representative like Keats so that the medical students, again like Keats, would be able to learn anatomy through dissection.

If Sarah were to die, I suspect she wouldn’t find body snatching as abhorrent as I do. Of course, I’m joking to keep myself calm in even thinking such thoughts, but even so, Sarah is adamant about having her body thrown in the ground—a fate which horrifies me. She wants it to go back to nature, as she calls it, to be useful. We have this argument from time to time, always a little tongue-in-cheek, in which she tells me how beautiful it would be to become part of a tree, while I argue that such a course isn’t legal, that you can’t go burying bodies in your backyard, and as far as the trees go, the trees can sodding well take care of themselves, and it would make far better sense for her to be burnt and our ashes to be mingled together. “I keep my dad’s ashes on my desk,” I tell her, “and I like having him there—for the company.”

But I don’t keep his ashes in a reliquary or an urn or even a fancy box. I like having his cremains in a plastic baggie, so that I can see his ashes all day every day, and because the utilitarian nature of the plastic makes his death seem more a part of normal life.

“Well then,” Sarah says, with her sweetest, most ghoulish smile, “at the very least, we ought to donate our bodies to science.” A phrase I suspect she knows gives me the willies.

When I show this to her, she claims never to have said those words. And when I think about it, it doesn’t sound in the least like her. Maybe I’m making it up for effect—the affectionate-but-salty-couple routine—in order to distract myself from the fact that she’s still sick, that I’m still waiting for symptoms to develop. The number of sick people in New York is doubling every three days.

More than likely, Sarah said nothing about science, but did say something about fitting in to the natural cycle. Of course the cycle of epidemic, at least from the microbe’s point of view, is also the natural cycle; and in the 1820s in Keats’s London, a city of 1.4 million people, one in four died of tuberculosis. Almost 200 years later, according to the World Health Organization in 2018, TB killed 1.5 million people worldwide. If no drug is found for Covid-19, and half of all Americans are infected, some say 1.5 million Americans could die.

The three antibiotics I take as a cocktail are meant to spare me what Keats suffered. But I imagine that Keats, even on his death bed—perhaps especially on his death bed—would come down on Sarah’s side, partly because of his medical education, but also because his poems are obsessed with natural cycles. In his Odes especially, the speaker merges his subjective consciousness with whatever he’s perceiving—what he called “negative capability” when listening to a nightingale or observing how in autumn “The red-breast whistles from the garden-croft; / And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.”

If Sarah should die, if I should . . .

But Sarah’s no worse, and so far, I’m just fine. Drama queen!

But even Keats in the sign-off to his last letter can’t resist a little self-dramatizing flourish, a beautifully affectionate, self-ironic gesture toward his close friend and future biographer, Charles Brown:

“I always made an awkward bow.”

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Tom,

For a doctor talking on the phone with a patient who reports trouble breathing, it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish Covid from anxiety. Clue: if a person can speak a complete sentence without pausing to catch breath, serious lung disease is very unlikely. And some speak paragraphs without pause.

And then there’s the man who seemed fine, till yesterday, and now he’s on a ventilator.

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Chuck,

On a walk to the Brooklyn Piers, I watched two soccer teams having at it: they body-checked each other, their hands took surreptitious swipes at the backs of jerseys, the sweat of one flew into the face of another. They completely ignored the six-foot rule.

Ditto the old men who sit outside all summer, spring, and fall and play a spirited game of dominoes under a bare tree in which toy bears, horses, trolls, babies, a giraffe with bug eyes, a zebra, a cat, a bunny looking blotto, a sad-faced moose, all hang from the branches. They sit on the sidewalk in folding chairs and crowd around the board, all of them over sixty, probably most of them in their middle seventies. Of the eight who have gathered today, only one wears plastic gloves. I love seeing them out there and fantasize about joining them: their obliviousness and banter seem to say, If your number’s up, your number’s up.

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Tom,

A very seasoned medical secretary reminded staff to be patient, saying that people who work in medicine are accustomed to approaching disease with calm and purpose, so that the Covid pandemic, while unprecedented, is conceptually familiar to us.

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Chuck,

In Brown’s biography of Keats, he has Keats say: “My last operation . . . was the opening of a man’s temporal artery. I did it with the utmost nicety; but, reflecting on what passed through my mind at the time, my dexterity seemed a miracle, and I never took up the lancet again.”

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Tom,

Keats was bloodletting. This ancient medical practice involved opening a blood vessel, usually a vein by the elbow, though in the poet’s example an artery near the temple, and letting the blood run freely before binding the incision. Healers explained the operation, which persisted unchanged for millennia, as a means of expelling a disease-causing demon or contagion, or re-balancing life energy, or adjusting the four humors. A more likely explanation is the even-more-ancient ritual of blood sacrifice. The patient offers his life blood to propitiate the gods. The doctor asserts his power.

Opening the temporal artery—a bloody mess, probably splashing the physician-in-training, his face (no mask), his hands (no gloves), and his clothing (no white coat.)

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Chuck,

Out on my early morning walk, I saw a new kind of litter: discarded medical waste—face masks of different colors; plastic gloves, both transparent and pigmented; cardboard boxes of antibiotics.

Exhibit 1:

Transparent glove underwater, the tips of the thumb and middle finger buoyed up by air pockets so they emerge just above the water’s surface. A sodden oak leaf nestles just above the wrist-opening; and dead leaves, some dark brown, some light, hover near it, submerged, floating above and below. Shimmering across the leaves and the glove is the shadow of my reflection, the outline of my head and shoulders looking ghostly.

Exhibit 2:

An aquamarine-colored mask next to a pair of transparent gloves thrown down on a square of dirt sprouting a Callery Pear tree.

Exhibit 3:

A box of Amoklavin-BID (I assume for lung infections, Chuck?, since it’s a form of amoxicillin? Related to the amoxicillin clavanulate that you’ve prescribed for me so many times?)

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Tom,

This is amoxillin/clavulanic acid, as you say, an antibiotic pairing used to treat infections of the sinuses, respiratory tract, skin, and sometimes gastrointestinal or urinary tracts. It would treat some cases of pneumonia or bronchitis but would have no activity against coronavirus.

Amoklavin is a trade name used in Lebanon and Kenya. Ah, Brooklyn.

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Chuck,

I keep thinking about a post-Apocalyptic movie, I Am Legend, starring Will Smith as one of the last human beings on Earth who hasn’t been infected by a virus that turns the sick into gangs of murderous, ultra-muscular, ultra-violent monsters. The trailer takes you through Will Smith’s day:

Exercise: Will running on the treadmill, then doing pull-ups;

Recreation: Will hitting golf balls off the deck of the USS Intrepid into New York Harbor;

Hunting: Will aiming a rifle as he competes with an escaped lion for a deer;

Gathering: Will harvesting corn planted in a park;

Waiting: Will on a park bench at South Street Seaport waiting for another human being to respond to his daily broadcast to meet him;

Night: Zombies come out and mayhem ensues—zombies plunging through plate-glass windows, zombies being blown up, zombies chasing Will and his dog, more zombies being electrocuted: poor zombies!

Meanwhile, the captions on the trailer shout:

I AM IMMUNE I AM THE LAST HUMAN I AM THE LAST HOPE I AM LEGEND

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Tom,

A healthy couple holed up in a small apartment, one more cautious, the other less so. He wants food deliveries to be left at the door, then wiped with disinfectant before crossing the threshold. He wants to wear gloves at home, to wash towels daily, to eat and sleep separately. She wants to go for a walk.

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Chuck,

Against the melodrama of I Am Legend balances this moment from yesterday’s walk:

I’m down at the Brooklyn waterfront piers when I see a young Hasidic couple at the top of concrete steps taking selfies of each other with the East River and the Manhattan skyline in the background. The young man and his wife have exceedingly innocent faces and are clearly on their honeymoon. But now he comes running down the steps and waving his arms for me to stop, points vigorously at his cell phone, as if to say, Sir, Sir, take our picture, please? I’m stunned; and begin shaking my head violently and waving him away, all the while shouting, “I can’t take your picture! Are you nuts? There’s an epidemic!” His clear eyes behind his glasses look shocked, as if I’d slapped him and his wife in the face—I feel a flash of remorse, then anger at his sheer gormlessness, then shame at having hurt his feelings, then more anger. What if he thinks I’m an anti-Semite?…How could be so clueless? . . . Why did I have to react like such a jerk?

In the face of such ultra-aggressive innocence, it’s easy enough to become an ultra-aggressive zombie!

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Artists and writers confined to isolation imagine they’ll get a lot of work done. Not so: they find themselves unable to concentrate, distracted by the crown-shaped virus.

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No symptoms yet…though the person who infected Sarah now has a fever of 104 degrees.

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Dear Tom,

A weird inversion of the London Blitz, as witnessed in the haunting Henry Moore sketches, when people left their homes to huddle together in the underground stations. People infected with coronavirus huddle alone.

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Tom,

A patient under my care has been hospitalized with Covid, and I am sick at heart.

Does anyone recognize how doctor and patient, after years of visits, become friends? Some more than others, of course, but a bond develops, so that the patient’s sickness is like a friend’s sickness. So different from the situation meeting a person for the first time, diagnosing an illness, and admitting to the hospital, which is much more a formalized transaction between two parties in a professional relation.

Did I do anything wrong? Did I miss something? Should I have done anything differently? I am sick at heart.

But I can’t be sick at heart—I have to call patients.

March 21–28, 2020

Charles Bardes (visit his solo author page) is a physician who practices and teaches medicine in New York.  His_ _book-length prose poem, Diary of Our Fatal Illness (University of Chicago Press, Phoenix Poets, 2017), narrates the illness and death of an aged man. Other poems, essays, and ruminations have appeared in AGNI, Raritan, Ploughshares, The New England Journal of Medicine, and elsewhere. Pale Faces: The Masks of Anemia (Bellevue Literary Press, 2008) is an extended lyric essay that probes the mythological and cultural aspects of a common disease construct. In 2018 he received the Blackwell Prize in Writing, which “honors a writer who exhibits exceptional talent on the printed page, as well as meaningful social commitments on the public stage.”  More info at charlesbardes.com. (updated 3/2020)

Books by Tom Sleigh (visit his solo author page) include House of Fact, House of Ruin; Station Zed; Army Cats, which won the John Updike Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; and Space Walk, winner of the Kingsley Tufts Award. His most recent book of essays, The Land between Two Rivers: Writing in an Age of Refugees, recounts his time as a journalist in the Middle East and Africa. He has received the Shelley Prize from the Poetry Society of Ameria, and grants from the Lila Wallace Fund, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the American Academy in Berlin, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. He teaches in the MFA Program at Hunter College and is a contributing editor of AGNI. For more, visit www.tomsleigh.com. (updated 3/2020)

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