How would you describe this pandemic time? To me it feels like a string of secret hours, the sort that sometimes feel delicious but then burn down your life. But that’s not what I would have said if you’d called me, as you would have, if you were still here, to ask, guardedly how I am. You would have said you are fine. I would have said I am fine. We both would have kept our secret feelings secret.
I am thinking now about the time you read one of my memoirs and then called to say you’d felt you’d walked into “the secret life of Barrie.” That made me laugh (secretly) as of course a memoir is the opposite of a secret, especially by the time it’s revised, edited, published, publicized. But I also understood what you meant. After all those years you were finally, really, trying to read me.
I am trying now to read you, from the depths of an interiority shared by my spouse and my dogs, all of whom are now enmeshed in this cluttered privacy. Linnea and I are choosing to abide by what the scientists say about our age and the risks, so we haven’t even yet been out to join the protests, aside from standing at our open windows banging pots in memory of George Floyd, staying away from the virus as we work on getting Linnea safely down to Florida to move her Mom up to the senior-living apartment, waiting for her down the street from us in Chicago.
My secret-sphere is occasionally interrupted by a phone call with Mom, your widow, who unlike Linnea’s mother says she’ll never leave Florida, or by Chicago neighbors I wave to, over six feet of city space, while walking the dogs, trusting that we are all smiling behind our masks, or my favorite optician who came to my front gate in gloves and a mask to measure my gaze for new eyeglasses. Otherwise my pandemic is marked by screens streaming television news of protests and pandemic graphs, or my stories—as I’ve come to call whatever series I am binging this week, the words my story reminding me of the older women of my childhood, the aunts and grandmothers and ladies of the neighborhood who gave the children root beer floats and board games to keep us quiet so they could watch their afternoon soaps. The other screens are crowded with my students, my colleagues, sometimes my old friends, as well as cabarets, lectures, readings, texts, Twitter-sinkholes, AA meetings. It’s July and the corporeal world flickers at borders I have rarely crossed since March.
Dad, I don’t think you would have been able to do this. I don’t think you would have told me the truth about whether or not you were doing this. For a while you would have been content to garden, and your Florida backyard would have been abloom, as it has not been since you left us. Your funeral was two years ago yesterday and Mom still has your voice on the answering machine, but that’s not enough the keep the flowers alive. And you’d have sat by your computer. I would have taught you Zoom, and you would have shaken your head and smiled flatly, the same way you did the Christmas afternoon Linnea and I Skyped you the first time and you couldn’t believe this space age TV-phone thing was for real.
But would you have become antsy, the way you always did whenever we sat around too long? Come on, you’d say. What are we doing today? We can’t just sit. Would you have complained about the people in Florida, the ones you called your associates, who would have tried to convince you that COVID-19 was a hoax? Would the stress of being the only Democrat in your Florida pool be the thing that finally killed you? When the streets in the Northern cities filled with protesters, would we have argued when I said it’s not a riot, it’s an uprising and would you have told me more about the southside Chicago marches with Dr. King you remembered? Would I have finally asked if you’d ever joined in?
Do you want to hear about what I’m finding out about the history of the Chicago uprising (yes, I’ll call it an uprising) on the West Side in 1968, after Dr. King was assasinated, the same year you went to that infamous Chicago Democratic Convention? I’ve always known about the anti-war protests where police beat up white kids, but I’m just learning about the fires that same year in the Black neighborhoods of East and West Garfield Park—burned down the way South Minneapolis was in 2020—and I want to know what you remember. And now, during the pandemic, would you have gone out to the club to hear jazz, like Mom did when Florida reopened too soon? You wouldn’t even take your pain pills after knee replacement, so how likely is it that you’d have worn a mask? If you had lived a bit longer would COVID have gotten you?
I know you would have wondered how I am. Mostly I am not too bad. I have never minded long periods of time alone and I like teaching from home. I have set up my work room as control central, with numerous computer screens and everything on wheels so I can keep changing my video meeting ambiance. My dogs are always with me. Linnea cooks. I’ve bought probably 100 books I don’t have time to read but the new titles are pleasing, piled up all around me. Linnea shaved off most of my hair that I’m now growing out to see if it’s silver enough to be interesting, but aside from making donations, and new glasses to help me see all these screens, I have spent barely a cent.
I woke up today thinking I am overly fine, the way I used to be fine when I was young and living in my first solo apartments, always alone, drinking and getting high while trying to write poems on long yellow legal pads but really just watching reruns on a little black-and-white TV —that’s the secret life of Barrie—which felt like fine but was not fine. I might not be fine again if I don’t pull away from the lure of all these screens where I can always stand at angles that project me back to myself as a fiction. You’ll be glad to hear I made an appointment to get my bike fixed this week. Dad, mostly I’m glad you missed all this.