The Saturday night before Valentine’s Day, there was a sharp rapping on Ms, Myska’s door. By the time she slipped on both of her face masks, her face shield. her gloves, the visitor had gone. On her doormat was a red foil gift bag with tufts of tissue paper jutting out. She looked in all directions, but there was no one in the hallway of her apartment building. She retrieved the package, stepped back inside, and applied the deadbolt.
She set the package on her hall tree bench. She gently removed the tissue paper to reveal a large box that smelled faintly of something rich and sweet – chocolate. She removed the box from the bag: “St. Basil Gift Box Assorted Specialty Chocolates.” There was a card. All it said was “Tony.”
She had met Tony Lasko, the ice cream man, months ago, when he drove his truck through the neighborhood. After he became sick from the coronavirus, she had not heard from him. And after more virulent strains had entered the population, she was even more reticent to go outside. She doubted she would have met him out anyway.
She took off her disposable gloves and sat on her sofa beside her window, the window where she had first seen the ice cream truck go by. She hugged the chocolates of her motherland to her chest.
Lyla wanted to be called manic depressive – by her therapist, by everyone. And not bipolar. So clinical. So politically correct and so, well, inaccurate. It felt dishonest. And Lyla lived in Florida. It was hot. She considered herself hot-headed and a tropical gal, perfect for the environment, well-suited. Mentally ill people flocked here for the warmth especially if they found themselves without a home. She often felt herself to be very close to this circumstance.
In response to Lyla’s demand that she be called manic depressive, her therapist put on her analytical face, a kind of receding expression Lyla had come to know well in person though in a zoom meeting, it lost some of its power. “I would like to understand why you want to be labeled manic depressive,” she said. “I am worried you are not being fair to yourself.”
This one used her “I” statements, thought Lyla. This was Lyla’s fifth therapist in ten years. She didn’t welcome the chaos and emotional upheaval of therapy shopping during a pandemic.
“I like it,” Lyla said, wanting to be impulsive and draw others into reacting impulsively. She didn’t feel like she should have to provide an explanation for what she wanted. She expected to get what she wanted, especially from someone she was paying.
Her last therapist told her, since she was divorced and in the throes of midlife, she could do whatever she wanted, come up with a new identity, dye her hair purple if she chose, dress how she pleased, pursue new hobbies, a whole new lifestyle. She missed that therapist, but during their last session, the therapist had hinted Lyla might be unfit for motherhood. Lyla had stormed out of the therapist’s office. That was back when treatments were in person, back before her son successfully went to college and began his own life. The drama of such confrontations and exits from therapy were gone, part of a former era in mental healthcare it seems. So much for in-person tantrums.
These attempts to meet on a computer screen reminded Lyla of her early days on lithium. There had been so little she seemed to experience directly. It was like she was swathed in cotton batting. That was before she switched meds, temporarily lost her hair, and started to puff out. But she was more herself again once she got used to it.
“I think crazy people who are acknowledged as such are seriously missing in our world. Everything is so politically correct. Everything is so bland. It’s boring.”
More gazing from cool blue eyes. Had she actually spaced while Lyla was talking? Blue eyes then wrote something down in her notebook. “Well, ok,” she said, looking back up into the tiny eye of the camera. “How are your meds?”
And that was about it. About ten minutes total. There was no lively debate, no storming, no confrontation. Lyla had been looking at her own face half the time on the screen, which was distracting. And the spaces of time between their exchanges were even longer with the technology.
Once they had set a date for the next appointment, Lyla signed off and slammed down her laptop. It was draining. And now, so quiet.
Lyla had developed a fascination for a west coast youtuber who was a makeup artist.* The youtuber applied fabulous and meticulous faces to herself. Each episode was different. While she transformed her whole face, from kinda cute to a magnificent beauty, she told true crime stories. Lyla could not get enough of these videos. They were mesmerizing, hypnotic. She sometimes fell asleep to the young woman’s gossipy but confident style as the stories stories scrolled from one to the other. She occasionally woke to the laptop almost overheating.
Had Lyla been better at makeup, this could be a fun hobby to try. And well, she just didn’t have the kind of bank it would take to get tools, paints and powders together. Another woman on youtube, a much older and not quite as cute but kindly looking, read lesser known fairy tales in a gentle voice. That was wonderful too. And she spun her own web.
Why couldn’t she transform herself into a youtube star? She didn’t know. What was she going to do? She had drowned a couple of plants from overwatering, had sent multiple texts and emails to friends and family, walked the neighborhood a couple of times when she felt inspired.
But without the friction of the presence and annoyances of others, there was no motivation to be quirky, there was no identity, only endless self, whatever that was on any given day. She knew of bipolars and unipolars as they are all called now, who had suicided or slid into substance abuse during the pandemic. Those days were over for her, pandemic or no. Besides, it was only fun when there was someone to perform for.
She looked into her closet as if for an answer. On a shelf, she spotted a paintbrush and a pot of green paint the color of a sweet pea. It was leftover from when she revamped a small table to go beside her old wicker lounge chair on the porch. Over the headboard in her bedroom, she painted a little minimalistic flower with a petal falling down like a tear.
She wasn’t really supposed to paint on her walls, but who was coming by to see? Repairmen for the complex only entered apartments in cases of extreme emergency. And it felt good, what she had done. Like, someone would eventually see and know she had done something wrong. There would be a reaction! She fell asleep that night, satisfied. That night, she dreamt of Chagall paintings, of slightly abstract and surreal images – flowers, people, animals, buildings, designs. When she awakened, she ordered paints and brushes, much cheaper than women’s makeup.
Over the course of the week, she started with the little area around the flower. She began to expand the space with a profusion of flowers she loved – bougainvillea, Don Juans, clematis. She realized she had forgotten something and painted over them with an azure blue. She then painted her room with the color of the sky. Then she filled in the sky with deep green vines, fuchsia blooms, white and purple flowers, red roses. In the dining room, she painted the walls blue and painted people and chickens and angels and the Eiffel tower and planets floating off into space. She painted her bathroom a burnt orange and painted huge white and green paisleys. She ordered a special acrylic paint and drew tiny figurines and sayings on the tile of the backsplash in the kitchen.
When she was finished, she painted her arm like the tattooed west coast youtube makeup artist. She painted vines and flowers, and she made a vine look like it was going up her neck. She painted flowers coming out of her hair along her forehead. She made a huge drink of punch and rum with lots of cherries and canned pineapple. She sat on her screened-in garden porch and sipped her drink until she felt numb. She watched the light change as the golden hour approached. She watched the children and dogs go by. She watched a squirrel scampering on a nearby tree, a green lizard suspended on her porch screen, a palm branch falling to the ground.
I am perfectly manic depressive, she thought, sipping the cool, sweet drink. Hells yeah, this was it. But ok, I’ll take my meds as per. But being crazy is the one thing I got, the one thing with an edge.
A jay squawked from high up in an oak, as if he agreed her and would call a crazy person out if that was the reality. Lyla lifted her drink in a toast to the little dingbat.
Kalene tried not to see it as a harbinger of death that her dog sat closer and closer to the bedroom door earlier and earlier each day. It had become their habit to go to the bedroom right after her last meal, which, during Kalene’s bout with an undiagnosed pain, had also been earlier and earlier with each passing day. In the days before lockdowns and worldwide panic, before pain wore on her as the sun set lower in the sky, Kalene was a lover of the night. She and her dog were night watchers.
Now, she took pills to numb pain’s effects. The pills made her sleepy. And so she and her dog got into the habit of retiring at six or seven in the evening. When there were no other commitments, their hour of turning in became four o’clock in the afternoon. Over the holidays, it became two o’clock. On New Year’s Day, she had returned to her bedroom at noon, not long after lunch, though sometimes her decisions were ruled not just by pain, but also by feelings, a kind of overwhelm.
The dog, who had become used to her round soft bed before the electric fireplace in her bedroom, now preferred to sleep in Kalene’s bed. Always a way to enter the bed had been provided, a cushioned footstool, a way to aid in the ascent. And the two of them would pile in with feather pillows, soft sheets and blankets. The dog had positioned herself closer and closer to Kalene in bed. In the mornings and throughout the day, the dog sat outside the bedroom door staring at her as if to ask: “Is it time for bed?” Something about that made Kalene very sad, very worried.
The little dog had developed a gasping cough since pandemic lockdowns. She had been diagnosed with an enlarged heart and prescribed pills. The prognosis was not great. Pills would not cure this malady. But the dog, like all healthy dogs, had loved hard her whole life, had loved her little family. And now there was change. There was uncertainty.
In the years before the pandemic, the little dog would not have gone to bed without her owner. Wherever Kalene was, that was where she wanted to be. And yet, here she was going to bed without her. When Kalene left her bedroom door open in the mornings, the dog would pile in among the rumpled sheets and sleep.
It reminded Kalene of an egg tempera painting by an artist of an old dog sleeping on a wooden four poster bed. Kalene had an original lithograph of another of the artist’s work, of wind from the sea blowing aged curtains into a dimly lit room. She hoped to frame it and put it in her bedroom. The other reproduction was a poster. It was an image of a woman sitting in the grass leaning toward an ancient, peeling house. Kalene doesn’t have the painter’s work “Master Bedroom” portraying the dog sleeping on the humble sanctuary of a worn coverlet. She doesn’t think she could bring herself to hang it in her home and see it every day. But of course, she knew of it. And Kalene’s dog now preferring the quiet sanctuary of her bed reminds Kalene of the subdued scene of this old dog curled on the pillows as if curling up on a headstone.
Friends accused Kalene of magical thinking. She once voiced concern to them one night when they were out that she fell down the stairs the day after she complained about her parents. She felt the accident was a kind of cosmic punishment for her ingratitude. One of her friends, a therapist, told her that this was “magical thinking” and of course the two incidents were not related. She did not tell her friend that she had once thought of her cancer as a kind of punishment for her divorce. Though she trusted her friend’s opinion, she was not altogether certain of the invalid nature of her understanding of things.
She was born and bred on the reading of signs. Her Protestant family extrapolated deeply into daily life for the telltale signs of God’s will and also evidence of God’s displeasure. Things were said about consequences for thoughts or actions that felt heavy handed and simply not true but some aspect of this practice of an attribution of causes implanted itself into her worldview. It was her habit to make connections to some concept of the Supernatural. And she often had a grim viewpoint. Where people saw nostalgia in the popular works of the egg tempera painter for example, works that had even become well beloved kitsch, she saw darkness, even death.
It was not a good sign her little dog, not long ago a frisky little impish thing, now made her think of the painting of the yellow dog in a wooden bed in a dimly lit room. The poster of the woman in the grass, leaning toward a dilapidated farmhouse in the distance had been a framed print in her grandparent’s home in Louisiana, a framed reproduction above the mantle. As a girl, the artwork always puzzled her and made her a bit sad, but as a girl she didn’t question many things. Things just were. She felt certain the adults knew what it was about and why it seemed sad and that one day she would figure it out. What she couldn’t know was that images and their associations could haunt you the rest of your life, that certain art will come back to you in your memory as solidly as an encounter with a friend or family member, as solidly as the face of a loved one.
She felt it impossible not to put too many things together, to try to practice the concept when applicable: This statement is true and that statement is true, but the two are not necessarily related.
Though the painting of the yellow dog may not have been a representation of death or even fragility, she now felt the concepts related. Maybe it simply meant to say something else entirely. But the dog standing at her doorway, begging for access to her bed when the day had not begun, began her thinking in a certain way, however much her dog’s behavior was related to her medical diagnosis or the dog’s new association of the bed and bedroom with the peace and quiet needed to cope with a new physical ailment.
To Kalene, her dog standing at the bedroom door waiting for rest felt like something more final. And what is to talk a Protestant girl-become-woman out of her magical ideas, out of believing the interconnectedness of the natural and supernatural world, out of the signs and portents she believes point to a reality that cannot be known by science? Reading the signs has helped her survive, so she thinks. And in a time when survival is at a premium, there is no setting aside survival habits, however ill-formed and maladaptive.
She is filled with dread for what she may find one day in her bed, more than what may happen to her own physical and mental health should she become ill. She does not want to think of finding her pet in her room, cold, lifeless. She wonders if she will ever be able to sleep in the bed again if that should happen. She wishes she believed in the cleansing of sage and other spiritual beliefs and practices but again, her modern day Protestantism kept her from certain practices. She feels sometimes trapped in a web, as an insect, her destiny determined, the chosenness of being a target of the spider, as she watches the world around her, only being able to emote, only being able to know: This is happening to me.
There is a magic turtle whose shell is pure gold. He is the most powerful animal of all animals in the swamp. And yet he is a silly little turtle: Whenever he tries to help others, he changes his mind, snaps, and retreats into his shell, lest his magic disappear.
There was a radiating pain that traveled from the right side of her neck and shoulder to her fingertips. A breast and thyroid cancer survivor, it terrified her. Months before, a couple of months before the outbreak of the pandemic, she declared her own freedom from a drug that would have prevented relapse. The drug had hobbled her and she was tired of feeling old in midlife, of making excuses for her immobility, of being embarrassed because she did not look old enough to be moving that way. It had been worse than chemotherapy, especially because no one had told her this would happen. People rang a bell on their chemo ward last day of treatment, people sang and clapped. There were no more bells for this interminable, solitary journey. She would have had to stay on the drug for five years. Although she had grown her hair back, she was moving like she was one hundred and if she was moving, she was in pain.
Now there was this new thing she couldn’t face, this new pain she couldn’t pay for. A nurse for her oncologist had said over the phone it sounded like muscular pain and so she went to a chiropractor. He was able to get her to the point of mobility but he also pressed on the radiated flesh of her right side in a way that broke her down again though not completely. And she couldn’t afford him after a while. And she was avoiding doctors again like she did when her right breast flared with cancer, but now it felt like there was a valid reason: the pandemic.
The pain almost kept her mentally alive some days, she was on a routine of over the counter meds and CBD oil. Every several hours, there was something new to take. Every few weeks, she researched and dug for help. Her fear could be killed with an occasional television series streaming binge or a belt of alcohol, a glass of wine, just enough to keep her going until the next day.
She couldn’t find a job. She had plenty of education, but much less job experience. There was pressure now in her family that she find a job. When she was married and later when she had a son, no one wanted her to do anything but keep a house. Even writing was discouraged. Now that she was middle aged with no work experience, almost zero, as well as juggling pain and anxiety, family could only seem to be happy when they thought she might work.
She was the husk of a used body, the kind you might throw onto a pile of other used bodies on the outskirts of a city, bodies whose sole function might be fuel in the burning or at least nurture for the soil for they were useless otherwise by society’s standards. She was so angry some days she thought she might already be producing fuel but really it was just a bit of noxious gas, dissipating and aimless. The desire she felt to go toward a direction was often thwarted by anxiety, either that or its seeming opposite – despondency.
She was able to see the tops of a tall stand of pines from her apartment window. It reminded her or her girlhood in South Carolina. How beautiful was the wind through a pine forest, its swishing like the sifting of dry grain, the needles glistening in the sun. One day she may lie at their feet and fall asleep and not get up. If she cannot afford the rent increase in a pandemic, if the pain gets worse, if she is squeezed by despair or hunger. She would never have advocated giving up, having fought so hard during years of suicidal ideation, divorce, cancer, diabetes. And yet how many pressures add up to the end? She knew this is one thing that perhaps she had never put seriously to herself until now. Pandemics, she was finding out, may turn out to be the final pressure vise.
But she was pretty sure that even if homeless and ill in her sunny climate, she would not give up. She could see herself as the crazy singing patron who came into the public library thirty years ago and sang her reference requests or the coupon lady with tons of flyers cutting and cutting all day at one of the tables.
She had been a librarian at the time, a time before her marriage. Such patrons and other lost souls, many of them homeless, many of them unwashed and mentally ill, were legendary among the staff. She was pretty sure she wouldn’t stop living by her own hand, no matter what. Even if no one would claim her, even if she could barely claim herself, she imagined she would go on, she imagined she would sing and sing and sing, alone and to trees, to her aged dog, to the dirty streets, to God.
All it took to avoid death was a cloth shield on the face. And yet, there was a state-run mind-warp loud as a bully or psyops equating the wearing of masks with weakness and disloyalty. Many of us are dying yet we war against subversion.
It was getting more difficult to see beyond the waves of the dead. They haunted the Lincoln bedroom, the oval office, the garden of roses where the crab apple trees had succumbed to the vicissitudes of fashion.
Some say the leader of the free world had to wear a special kind of goggles like reverse night vision goggles in order to make speeches that did not acknowledge them. The dead were as real and animate as the living.
They stood with him when he spoke, they whispered in his ear, they lingered among the living, his audiences, some distanced from each other, some sitting close. Even if the living sat close, the dead still managed to squeeze between them.
The leader of the free world had glasses made of gold, the lenses were rose. It was all the fashion. Some say it was necessary. The leader simply said they were cool, his new look. Others sported masks, he could sport his shades, but they were simply for coolnees.
With his glasses on he only saw the living when he looked out into his audiences, when he sat with others on a panel or in group discussions.
The appearance of the national flag changed with the glasses, however. He had to trust his advisors that what he was seeing was the national flag so he could put his hand over his heart when the national song was being played from a tape recorder.
The national flag cannot be viewed accurately with the glasses.
In central Florida on a morning of the pandemic, a leg of a Pinwheel Jasmine bent down to Ms. Myska’s screened in porch to say hello to friends: a potted four petaled Flaming Katy with a florist’s heart and a brand new succulent, a Donkey Ear.
Somehow this leg of the jasmine had escaped the sharp whirring string of the dark hatted man’s butchery. On this secret side of the otherwise manicured lawn of the complex, Jasmine’s white flowers bloomed in profusion as if in response to the Flaming Katy who, beyond all reasonable expectation of her owner, a neglectful Ms. Myska, was still alive and celebrating her survival.
Ms. Myska’s purchase of the Donkey Ear in the midst of the pandemic had been an act of faith. Jasmine had heard the woman say Donkey may have brothers and sisters. The woman planned to buy potting soil and pots and propogate him from clippings.
Jasmine tried not to laugh. She had seen how the timid Ms. Myska had stayed inside during the city’s contagion, sometimes even closing her blinds during the day, as if this could protect her. But Flaming Katy would get defensive if Jasmine laughed. She was the most loyal potted plant Jasmine had ever known though Jasmine actually knew no other. Jasmine was happy enough to support the old woman who seemed ancient to her though in people years was probably not so old. The woman was lonely.
During the day, Jasmine nodded her free limb to her friends who sat on the floor of Ms. Myska’s garden apartment. They only spoke to each other at night when Ms. Myska was in bed, asleep. They spoke of the birds and the frogs and the insects who had come to life in the wake of the hiding of the humans, in the pall of sickness and destruction. They spoke guiltily but of dreams, their dreams of a time primeval.
And yet Jasmine knew her limits. If it got out she had been talking the night away regarding her gleeful subversive hopes she would be cut down, only to be thrown into the massive iron teeth with the other wayward limbs. In the summer, in the heat of the day, she tucked herself deep within the bush, emerging only for the quenching nourishment of rain when she laughed and opened her mouth. Katy and Donkey would laugh too for Ms. Myska would place them by the screen where they could enjoy a cooling mist. It was a good summer.
A magic man came to town. Promised me I would dance. (I couldn’t walk.) Offered me his hand. (If I took it I would change.) Taking it, I felt electric. I felt tears. I didn’t want him to see me cry. But he did and smiled. I began to move.
There was no time to administer last rites. Spirits wandered hospital corridors. They moaned into the ears of physicians. The moaning was so woeful it penetrated the sleep of the hospital workers at night. Nothing relieved the cries of those who died alone.
A bird man watches the lithe lily girls dancing on the graves. Ashes, ashes we all fall down! He fills the beak of his mask with flowers. He points to one of the girls with his claw, indicating whose family will be next to die.
Because their parents died they made the children cakes: a Mickey Mouse cake, a beach cake with fondant shells, little hummingbird cakes they used to eat after school. At night the children dreamed of sugar until they drifted down onto an abyss. There was darkness, loss.
The children were told the dead, infected adults were going to the orange juice factory to be cremated. Only the children thought of orange creamsicles, hot summers, sticky fingers, cool melted orange cream. They wondered if they would be able to taste their parents on their tongue.
Because of the virus, criminals were released from prison. We lived in Starke, home of Old Sparky, the electric chair. They weren’t releasing murderer Wayne Doty on death row who had had been begging for electrocution so his soul could go free. We loaded our guns, nailed our windows shut.
On her deathbed, Granny made me swear I wouldn’t let them cremate her so she could rise with Jesus on the resurrection. Promise! she said. They took her body out on an unhinged door, feet first so she didn’t look back and drag us down with her to the grave.
In my dark apartment, you are not administering the body and blood, I am not hearing the last words of Jesus to his disciples, I am not touching your robe, I am not climbing the pulpit to read the Bible, I am not holding your hand on the way home.
In a city wracked by contagion I fall asleep in a dark apartment shuttered against the angel of death. My dreams are of you as a child. I am you in my dreams though in life you are my mother. When I wake, I am finally capable of love.
What songs do you sing to yourself when you are alone? Do you sing of God’s idea of you? Do you sing of dreams of a planet redeemed by animals? Do you sing of the earth’s darkest heart? Are you a troubadour? Will you make something new with your mouth?
In Alabama, in the darkness of her car, now a sinking vessel, a mother thinks of her child, excited for Easter, only a few hours before the tornado. An angel is with this mother now. He goes into the water first, his head submerging, so she will not be afraid.
I had a dream Easter Eve. I was riding shotgun in a Mini being driven by a Cheeto. He was talking in an airy voice, telling stories and baby rhymes. I was nodding in and out of consciousness. With his little round circle mouth he offered ineffectual assurances.
Saint Catherine’s Methodist Church near Bushnell, Florida by Dan Tantrum, flickr
The children had an Easter service for the ghosts. I put a glass of water in a nook in the pulpit for Father who had been the preacher. Then I sat down in the row with the others. We were quiet until someone started singing “All things bright and beautiful.”
That Easter, blood came up through the St. Augustine when you stepped on it, like water coming up through a saturated carpet, raising a footprint. Forensic geologists struggled to find answers. Politicians blamed the secret disease on the other side of the world. Everyone was dying.
The Easter we had to stay inside our apartments, we put our baskets outside the door. Even adults. At 5 a.m. the staff would fill them. I took my dog out at 1 a.m. but what was already in mine were bunny bones, a headless doll, and a blood red marzipan cross.
I am not supposed to be touching little Jesus inside my purse while I am at church. But Uncle Danny gave me Jesus before he died. I say sorry Jesus in case I touch his no no square. Mama gives me a look. Don’t worry, Lina, Jesus says to me.
He and She Gardeners by Carol VanHook, Children’s Magical Gardens in Sarasota Florida, flickr
The children board the Amtrak in Winter Park, Florida for the safe zones, the bodies of their parents lingering in the air having been part of mass cremations at the old orange juice factory. Some children became distracted by the songs of the ice cream truck. These children later died.