The world shut down abruptly one Monday before anyone had a chance to really think about it. I’d been in bed in my mom’s back bedroom watching Star Wars cartoons and smoking a bowl. I’d been committed to a pretty easy night when I received a text from mom: the governor was shutting down all non-essential businesses later that night. I’d hurriedly dressed to walk to the bar.
I wasn’t terribly fond of the bar. It had been my only option really for about two-years, ever since I’d moved back in with Mom. A muted feel of panic and desperation hung over the space, a drunk man declaiming about endless lines at the liquor store out on Eisenhower, two large paper bags full of take out six-packs dangling from each arm.
I sit down and order the first of three martinis. These are panic martinis; I am smoking panic cigarettes outside at regular intervals in the purpling dusk, the sun winking goodbye from behind a low stria of clouds down west toward Littlestown, a stream of eighteen wheelers and passenger cars lancing by with a whoosh and the steady accumulation of headlights on the homes’ facades. There has been, in the national mood for some time, a palpable sense that this all may be ending anytime soon. But for now it is shutting down, shutting down here and there, winking out, star patterns stippling the earth winking out in phases. I drunkenly think of a line from a Stephen King novel, a discovered graffito: will the last one out please turn out the lights.
I go back inside, I hold the door for other smokers; everyone is smoking and drinking out of fear. There are lines at the liquor store snaking around the whiskey. People are unloading shopping carts, multiple baskets, on to beleaguered cashiers’ counters. I want to tip the girl who made my drink but she’s running out the door. She needs to get to the liquor store. A man hurriedly pays his bill; he’s got to get to the liquor store. I’m nonchalant about the whole thing. For all I care, as I am beginning to realize, this whole virus could be a godsend; I could stop running to the liquor store. And I’m going to be an essential employee. This thought ricochets around my skull with frightening effervescence.
The world is darkening. Mom wants to know where I am. I text her that I am drinking before the world ends. She doesn’t answer me. She doesn’t approve. I don’t care in the moment.
A woman sits next to me. She has that blanched look that they all have, especially in the eyes, as if something about life out here rinses something out of them. They’re a strange family: her, her silent husband, her quieter son. He sits there like a Zagat critic. He makes $500 a night waiting tables at some “fancy” restaurant in Westminster. I want to say to her I once did too. Before everything got fucked up I did the same thing. I did it in Philadelphia and then I threw it all away and ran off to Berlin to teach English. Now I’m here beside you, listening to your prattle, sneaking furtive glances at your yellowing teeth, willowing hair. She informs me that this is all a liberal Democrat hoax. Some state government official with whom I have no working familiarity is speaking at a presser on the tube; the woman informs me that this woman was a man. I shake my head. Why is this baffling? The woman informs me that he’s a he-she. I get angry but I don’t want to ruin my last happy hour. I’m a third through my third cocktail and I just want to be left alone.
I hurriedly finish my martini and pay. I have a feeling that I won’t be back in two weeks. I find myself accepting things that I usually wouldn’t accept, like staying in this town another year, not that I had much choice. I didn’t have any money anyway. But I still didn’t want to stay in this town another year.
Americans are entering the store in groups. They’re not adept at social distancing. Americans are hoarding toilet paper, chicken breast, pasta sauce, the hoarding intensifying as the racks empty, so that soon Americans are hoarding the previously unthinkable: Americans are rediscovering chicken thighs, clam sauce, Spam, canned garbanzo beans, even canned vegetables. Ironic holiday hams and beef briskets man the empty coolers. For some reason no one wants them. Americans begin hoarding Easter candy. I begin to worry about the beer and wine. There are rumors that the shipments may cease. I’m running low on marijuana and need to infiltrate a putative hot zone in order to score more.
I fear a drug run in the midst of a pandemic may be conspicuous. I have never experienced one so I can’t say for sure how the streets of my former city may look. There are rumors that the police are pulling people over and conducting random searches, demanding papers, and this is too believable because this is America; the only people left who really believe that this is a liberal democracy are white families who earn more than $80,000 annually and people who attend Nascar rallies. I begin texting friends and asking them about these rumors. They’re bewildered. They chalk it up to my exile.
The manager enters our little alcove, where we originate when we shop for other Americans. She informs us that we are receiving a temporary two-dollar-an-hour raise. Why are we being lauded as heroes when we’re going to be trashed? Every night on the news they talk about our heroism and sacrifice. I sit there and bask in it by drinking and smoking far too many cigarettes. Of course some Americans aren’t getting it; people still get smart in the aisles over missing yeast and protein shakes. Some things never change. The fact that we perform essential labor will only remain recognized so long as this virus continues to kill Americans. In this I see a revenge, but I keep this knowledge to myself.
When I get home I take a hot shower, roll a joint, and pour a hefty glass of cheap wine. I’ll sit in the room where I’ve slowly lost my mind and smoke that joint and consider whether to watch Star Wars cartoons, play video games, read, or stare into space.
I roll another before pouring more wine. This is perverse. Between the government check the Chief Landlord promised us and these hours the irony is that I could escape. All this means is that when I escape—escape this town and the American Nightmare—when I escape I will be able to go far.
When I shop for other Americans who have the privilege of staying home I do not want them calling me a hero. I am merely the loser of a battle waged to decide who wins a nice life in this country and who endures. People on the internet are claiming, naïvely, that since we have learned the value of labor that we’d previously devalued they will finally treat us as human beings. I worry about these people. It was never about the value of our labor. It was always about other Americans’ sense of self worth; they endure in their cubicles, they endure their spouses, they grind their teeth through the warren of late stage life, and then they take it out on vulnerable people. This was always about the right of other Americans to vent their middle class ennui onto people less fortunate than they are.
When I shop for other Americans I wear a variety of protective gear. It has become increasingly perilous to shop in a country where before the gravest danger encountered in produce may be an enraged white nationalist with an unpopped cherry and a well-oiled gun who has decided that today is his manifesto day. We know that Americans like to make political statements in Walmarts. I wear a surgical mask. I wear a face shield. When I begin wearing the face shield the teenagers laugh at me. No one else wears them except the bag boy, who is really a man, my age, and I think my god it will just be Kevin and me. Once everyone else is dead or dying it will just be Kevin and I servicing all these fat fuck Americans.
I begin establishing and following certain protocols: I wear more on my face and scalp than a neurosurgeon arcing up a bone saw. I swap gloves frequently. I use hand sanitizer probably, at this point in the mortality rate, every fifteen minutes. I will not allow anyone to hand me anything. I begin stealing food. I first finch a package of uncooked chorizo. I cook it that night with some beautifully sautéed spinach and fingerling potatoes. I pretend that I am eating this at a café back in Berlin, back in my former life, perhaps the Berio, in the Massenstraße, perhaps the Einstein in the Kurfürstenstraße.
The day of the journey. Mom’s nervous. She believes the rumors about police powers. I’m skeptical. People are everywhere, and though many of them now wear masks and gloves, shopping too like doctors, surgeons, it doesn’t change the fact that most of them seem to believe that this is all going to continue on its alloyed ways. So there is no way that these people are avoiding the highway.
I drive out of town past the Golden Mile. I drive past golden arches. There are maybe thirty, forty, fifty cars broken into three lines, veritable death trains.
I take Route 30. I pass through towns with no names, or none that I’ve ever known. I can’t imagine growing up around here. I never could. They share universal traits: a strip of houses with blank eyes and littered yards, Trump flags flapping in the soft wind, a bar advertising $1.25 forties and $2.50 pitchers of leaden domestic brews, the invariable strip motel with two or three late model cars sitting in the lot, somehow managing to look forlorn in a rusty and forgotten sort of way. I imagine poor folk drinking away the sheer rage and desperation of modern American life, walking across from their rooms at the motel to the bar, not tipping, getting wasted.
I am peeing beside a brook. The brook naturally burbles. There is a mall in the background and a covered bridge in the foreground. Frankly the immediate scene is an idyll. The child in me who never died and who always dreamed of running away thinks that this would be a beautiful spot to settle down if everyone croaks. The carpet of vegetation is a shocking green, almost an Irish green, some form of clover, and the bridge is painted barn red and the brook is unsettlingly pretty, the way it all contrasts with the fog pressing down from above and the sides and the cottony March clouds that look like they’ve absorbed dish water. I usually stop and take the opportunity to walk quickly around such a time capsule. Malls feel like places from dead societies, and I rate them on their decay. This mall is pretty good. But now it’s closed and I have nowhere to pee. I relieve myself and hurry back to the car.
The Pennsylvania Turnpike is completely empty. The edge of the world is a thin disc dividing the pastoral landscape circling me with the moody storm clouds that seem unable to break away from the horizon the whole day. Signs blink the same message every few miles in large orange pixels: MAINTAIN SOCIAL DISTANCING.
I ease into another rest stop’s empty lot. I have left the corpses of two beautiful royal purple surgical gloves at different rest stops and convenience stores, shucked and tossed beneath the car. They sit there like accusations aside the accusing eyes of puddles reflecting the sky. I stop, don gloves, rush inside in my surgical mask and glance around. A custodian talking to a clerk looks at me. They didn’t even bother to put most of the overhead lights on, the stools up on the tables, the Burger King and Starbucks and off brand shit hole closed, the weird little alcove that sells maps and fifteen-dollar bags of cashews and ginger ales the only thing open. I urinate and a guy enters; he’s exactly my type too: taller than I am, well built, you can tell even through his clothes, cocky, you can tell, even in the midst of a plague; my mind is overcome with lust. I think about the last time I had sex with another man and retreat to that spot deep inside myself where I go when I can’t abuse substances and don’t want to think about how hard my life is, how much I have lost to myself and this American Experience. I shuck the purples gloves in the parking lot. The only other vehicle is a “College Hunks Moving Junk” van. I can’t stop laughing. We could have been lovers in a different world. We could go live in that idyll, beside that brook.
I am nearing the city. 76 is a dream. Traffic isn’t that bad at all. We have a ten percent mortality rate but everyone is still driving. I begin to become sentimental. It’s strange to become sentimental for a place that I couldn’t wait to escape. I have a vibrant memory of listening to Q Tip on this highway while driving with a friend to look at a potential new car. I was seventeen. That was twenty-years before. I pass the unlit cell towers of Manayunk. They glow red at night. I had a friend with a balcony that faced this way and when I would sit out there at night, heartbroken, homesick for Berlin, bewildered by the turns my life had taken I had allowed those red winking lights to seduce me and haunt me with their paranoiac incandescence.
It’s chilly and spitting rain as he comes to the door. I marvel over the interior. It’s nice—antique fireplace, high ceilings, potted plants, hardwood floors of a blonded hue, a kitchen island where we take seats as he fetches a large Tupperware container full of marijuana and portions out two ounces. He has a hangover. He is fleeing to Carlisle. I’m in shock; Carlisle is one of the towns northerly to me with which I have no working familiarity. He looks older than I remember and it shocks me; I remember when we were all young. I remember when we were definably young. Now he looks undeniably older, but then again, so do I. I’m sitting at his island in latex gloves and a mask. I take the two ounces. I secrete them in two Tupperware containers, one within the other like Russian dolls. I offer him a ride but he says he needs to get his shit together. He says he’ll take the bus. I ask him why he needs to go to Carlisle. He tells me a guy there wants chronic and owes him money. He admits, begrudgingly, that he is also fleeing the corpses stacked like cordwood and the virus that killed them. I offer to wait though I don’t really want to. At the mention of stacked corpses I want to hit the road and fast. I give him a hug he at first tries to refuse.
I approach her porch in my mask and fresh royal purple latex gloves. I am clutching a plastic bag with an ounce tucked inside. I place the baggie in the container specified, a repurposed cat litter tub. A man walking two dogs is watching me. I want to flip him off but I have an ounce in my trunk and a hundred miles to go and the rumors. I bust for the car. She’ll understand. I’d asked if I could stay with her but she said no. I understood. I might be infected.
The highway is empty and the fog thickens, the storm clouds darken to bruised shades: purple, blue, that eerie gray-green, though the rain never came. An overturned truck on 30 has spilt corpses out into the evening light, dishwater as it is. They didn’t even have them in bags. An impasto of dead Americans, their pale nude forms flung haphazardly in a tangled, knotted carpet. There’s really no back up because there’s no traffic, and the police haven’t even arrived yet. I slow down. The faces are rictuses of bewilderment and rage, almost indistinguishable from the faces in election rally crowds, emotional mirrors, save the blankness of their dead eyes. They get that way because when they die they can’t understand why they can’t breath and they can’t understand how the wealthiest nation on earth failed to provide enough respirators. They grew up on a diet of films where the Americans always arrive in thumping helicopters at the end and save the day. But no one is coming to save us.
Sitting on the couch getting high with mom. She doesn’t notice how much I’m putting away, but I do, and increasingly it’s frightening me. Boredom had spurred my first real breakthrough when I’d challenged my drinking. I could be bored but it was intolerably worse to be shitfaced and bored. I began to think of my drinking as pouring liquor, wine, beer, all of it into a hole busted up in the floor of a house. A vast nothingness is on the other side of that hole. I can never fill that hole. Once I realized that I cried and pretty much immediately quit drinking.
But the spring before I’d lost my last job and it became even harder to believe that I would ever get out of here. It seemed hard and disingenuous to believe that this was somehow a life. I started drinking again and the next thing I knew it was spring again and businesses were closing. The gym closed and then all of the gyms closed. They began to tell us to maintain social distancing and I thought, weren’t we already? Hadn’t we been for some time?
The news is on. We get high to watch the news. We change it from a press conference where a man is lambasting the press. The local news pans a highway full of bodies. They fan out like a woman’s hair around a truck, the tarp pulled taut by the spill. I was there today, I tell mom. I just happened to pass that. The men in the biohazard suits hadn’t yet arrived though, I added, afraid she might wonder if I’d been exposed. A dry voice narrates that authorities don’t know why the bodies had just been packed like fish in the back of an open top tractor. They omit where they had been taking a truck full of rotting Americans.
A woman is picking up her order in a woody station wagon. There’s a dead child in the back of the car. The dead child opens its eyes; a fly is buzzing over the child’s face; the woman is shrieking for me to get away as she holds her license to the car window. I leave the cart and retreat inside. I am shaking. There is the unshakable sense that we all might die. I watch the woman unload the cart and shove the cart into the sherbet dusk of the parking lot. It slams into a truck and overturns.
No one goes out to retrieve it until a manager goes out to retrieve it. He’s shaken. We’re all shaken. It’s dark outside tonight and people are dying everywhere. It’s a weird fucking world because so many of the lights remain inexplicably on. I drive home and Phil Collins is on the radio. My cigarette angrily spears the starry horizon over the glowing dash. I change the station. It’s always dusk or dawn or darkness for me in rural America because I spend my days as an unexpected frontline soldier in the war against the virus. But really in the end I’m just a person stranded out there in America, trying to get home.