Quarantine Dreams

Steel yourself for a year indoors. Haunted but not hunted; banging on the windows to let everyone know you’re home. All your hustle and bustle now only accessible via “the cloud.” Discothèque miasmatique — at least no one said it’d be fun!

Sweating the small stuff. Smearing the details. Is this where you want to zoom in? Don’t lose the plot. Don’t lose the scent. You’ll get lost at the parties that aren’t anymore and no one will know where you went.

Hello. Did you know that you’re asleep? Let us gallivant behind your eyes. Shut them softly, little one. How can you relax with such vigilance? You don’t know where I’ll take you if you let yourself go…

Gallivanting shall commence forthwith.

So, kids, what’s all this chaos? The clamor of my own unconscious. The glamor of my lost causes. The bewitchment of the grunting ape by the sorceress, once she despairs of teaching it to speak. A monkey marionette, made to dance and sing a tune that you didn’t know.

You know it now, don’t you? A melody that beseeches, caught up in the strands of this breeze as it blows toward Lady Tranquility’s house. The soundspell is woven with wind.

The sorceress sends a message to you, Lady. Madame, will you hear it, the plaintive ape?

Rest now, child, rest now, she tells you. Tranquility folds you into her arms and opens her mouth wide as a cobra and absorbs the whole song, every note of it, every one.

Who lured you into this fae fever dream? Lady Tranquility inquires.

Remember how you got here? I promised there’d be gallivanting.

Tranquility releases you back to the fray. Watch your step, she says, mind your way. And don’t be afraid to return! The primate howl reverberates in the valley once again, and again.

And Watch It Burn

Under the dome enclosing their perch high above the city, the storytellers sat in silence. Multi-colored facets caught the lowering sun’s light and refracted it within: geometric rainbows ebbed over the gathering.

Everyone had grown solemn at the previous tale’s conclusion. Now, after minutes lost in private reflections, they turned their attentions one by one to the man who next would speak.

Kaleb. Many among the company smiled, for most of the stories Kaleb had told on previous days had been humorous in nature, based as they were on a congenial self-deprecation. It seemed there would be a respite from the grimness of the day’s tales.

This impression was heightened by the light in which Kaleb sat: an elongated hexagon of glowing amber, limned on three sides by brilliant orange, on three others by cool green.

But the look on Kaleb’s face was strangely troubled. As the silence grew longer and still he did not speak, but gazed intently out at the charred and shattered rows of skyscrapers that fell away to the waterfront below, the company’s hope for relief turned to uneasiness.

Black, roiling smoke rose from a burning building to blot out the sun. Only when the smoke’s shadows curled and spun across his face did Kaleb begin.

A few weeks ago I met a guy on the street outside the building that’s burning down there now. He was sitting on the front stoop, with his arms wrapped around his knees and his eyes closed, singing. He was rocking back and forth, and there were tears pouring down his cheeks. The song he sang was an old round, an English drinking song. Some of you probably know it—

                  is anybody home?
                  Meat and drink and money
                  have I none—
                  Still, I will
                  be very very merry

—sung over and over again. And even though his voice was cracked and pretty raw, there was a strange joy in the way he sang it. I don’t know why, but something about this guy and his endless song captured me, and I sat down on the steps a few yards away from him.

Maybe it was just—I was exhausted. I’d been wandering through the city for I don’t know how long. Yeah, I know, it was a crazy thing to do. But at that point I just didn’t care. For days I’d sat in my little room on the Hill, with all the blinds pulled, staring into the dark. Listening to the sirens. People screaming. Feeling nothing. But you do that long enough, your mind won’t stay turned off, you know? The memories come back, and the pain.

I didn’t want that.

So I left. Wandered around downtown most of the day. I figured if I filled myself up with the pain of strangers, and people killing each other, and still felt nothing, then I’d be okay. Numb for life, right? Ha! And my memories couldn’t get to me.

Yeah, well, it worked. For a while. I saw a man getting gang-raped. I just walked on by. And a kid, so cut up I couldn’t even tell what sex it was, getting worked over by skinheads. Jesus! It hurts more now, just thinking of it, than it did then. I felt barely a twinge, you know? And I didn’t even bother skirting the green corpses in the street. I just stepped over them.

So later that day, I hear this guy singing. And I sat there, on the steps, not looking at him, but listening. I became so mesmerized that when he finally stopped singing, I barely even noticed. The lyrics had cut a groove in my brain so deep, it erased my ringing head. It was only when the guy spoke to me that I realized that, for the first time in weeks, the sirens going throughout the city had indeed stopped.

My head snapped up. The guy was staring at me with yellowing, blood-shot eyes. There were small green sores at his temples. Even a week before, some voice in me would have screamed to get away; that voice was dead.

He repeated, much louder, “I said, ‘How the fuck are you, bro’?’” And then his gaze hardened, and the blue-veined paleness of his face flushed a brilliant red. The intensity of the change reminded me of someone who’s just been pushed too far.

But I didn’t answer, and he didn’t move. My gaze was locked in his. I wondered, dimly, at the violence in his life that I would never know.

Then he did look away, and just as suddenly all the intensity was gone. And when nothing else could, that’s what finally freaked me: his symptoms were all wrong.

He acted like someone who’d just contracted the plague. Shattered. Kinetic. Moods flying apart like jagged pieces whose edges just don’t fit together anymore.

But physically, it was obvious the disease was far advanced. There was a necklace of open sores around his neck. He stank. The crooks of his arms dripped. And, a few moods later, after he leapt—I swear to God he leapt—like a tree-branch cracking—to his feet, and staggered the street in front of me, shouting me down, he walked like someone whose kneecaps are slowly splitting open from inside. Anyone that far gone doesn’t talk. All the screaming’s done. They’re numb. They shit themselves. They drool. Pretty soon they die.

Shit. I don’t have to tell you. But you can see why my stomach was clenching up, you know?

He burst out laughing. He waved at me and grinned like a clown, as if I were the one with the plague and he was trying to cheer me up. I stared at him stupidly.

And he leapt up. Jounced—sticks and stones—down the steps. Swung around, whooping for joy. No. It was more like a croak! He stopped and pointed a finger at me, swaying. Fuck if I know how he remained standing.

“Look at you!” Hysterical edges. “Just look at you. If it weren’t for this disease, I’d fucking slap you silly. Hell, it wouldn’t make any difference if I did. You’re prob’ly one of the few wh’re immune, arencha?” He clapped his hands. “Yeah!” He tried to snap his fingers, but they missed. He laughed. “Shit, man, I’m gonna be dead inside a month. And look at you, poor boy. Lost some loved ones, huh? A girlfriend, maybe? Some close friends? Well, ain’t we all, asshole! Oh, the grief, the grief!” He slapped the back of one hand across his forehead, fluttered his eyelids. The imitation was too ludicrous for words. Yeah, I think it was at that point that something in me cracked. “Oh, I just can’t stand it!” he cried. “I think I’ll go numb! Well, I’ll tell you, man, you’re the one who’s dead, not me. As long as you give in to the numbness, you might as well be dead.”

I can’t tell you exactly what happened next. I broke up. Turned into a jellyfish, there on the steps. I think he kept screaming at me. I think he kicked me once or twice. If he did—whatever it was—it knocked loose even more of the pain. It flooded out of me, shit, what can I say? I was alive again, and it hurt so much I couldn’t see straight.

I’m not even going to try to describe the memories that possessed me. They were like knives. If you can imagine being cut open down the middle, and all your guts have turned to jelly, and a mile of nerves oozes out over the pavements, and the pavements cook as on the hottest day of summer, then you know what it felt like, emotionally.

And you know, it was another week before I found out for sure that I was immune to the plague. Jesus! A month ago. And now I’m here, pretending I’m civilized. Whatever happened to time?

So, yeah, I’ll never know what it’s like to feel the plague coming on, but if it’s anything like what I went through then, then sure, I’ve seen hell too. I’ve seen hell too. Ha! Why does it seem like all words are meaningless? I guess they can hold only so much pain, and that’s never enough.

When I came to myself, I was curled up on the steps like I was still in my mother’s womb. Rocking back and forth. Someone was moaning, sandpaper on exposed nerves. It was minutes before I realized it was me. Which is when I stopped.

The city was quiet.

The quiet screamed—louder than mayhem.

The pavements were empty. I rocked myself up. No. If the city’s silence had a center, it was standing four feet in front of me. He stood without moving, unblinking eyes staring at nothing. Strings of drool dangled from his lips. (His sores pulsed scarlet-green. I thought I was going to be sick.)

I think I screamed. I don’t know. I think I screamed. I launched myself at his feet. I dragged him to the ground. Started pounding on him.

“Wake up, goddammit! Wake—the fuck—up!” Screaming. Screaming now. His goo was like fire on my hands.

I was too weak. I kept hitting him, but there was nothing behind it. Suddenly he grabbed my wrist, so hard he almost broke it.

His eyes were on me. I couldn’t look away.

“How does it feel to be alive again?” he whispered. Less than a whisper. An emptiness between the lips.

I couldn’t speak.

His fingers sagged from my wrist.

After a time, I managed to get to my feet. A longer time, and I managed to get him to his feet. No, it wasn’t that he didn’t have the strength. His strength scared the hell out of me. It was just that his joints didn’t work right. When he gained his balance, he shook me off.

I found my voice. “Just what kind of an asshole saint are you, anyway?”

He stepped.

Somewhere in the city, the sirens started up again.

“I don’t know about you,” he said, voice almost clear, “but until the day I die—and I know it’ll be soon—I’m not givin’ in to this plague. I’m not gonna die until I’m dead.

Silence. Sirens and silence.

“My apartment?” He nodded towards the building before us.


“I’m the only tenant still alive. And I’ll tell you, in a few weeks, when the final numbness sets in, the real numbness just before you die? You know what I’m gonna do?”

I shook my head.

“I’ve already got a stockpile of old newspapers. When my body starts goin’ numb, I’m gonna set the whole fucking building on fire. I’m gonna burn alive. ’Cause when I die, I want to feel it.”

Under the dome, the storytellers turned to stare out at a certain tenement building, and watch it burn. On every face, through many colors, shadow-smoke spun.

“A glorious death, my friend,” Kaleb whispered. He raised a hand, held up a wine glass made of empty air. And then, very softly, began to sing.

Holy Ground

The holiday of Passover, marked by Jews across the world on the evening of the first full moon following the spring equinox, celebrates the exodus of the ancient Hebrews from slavery to freedom. 

The struggle of the Hebrews, led by Moses, to free themselves from the harsh labors imposed on them by Pharoah and the Egyptians, is retold in the ceremony known as a Seder.  Towards the end of the Seder the crossing of the Red Sea is noted as the actual and symbolic crossing from slavery into freedom.   

Many times the Hebrews called out to God to relieve their suffering, and many times God answered, ultimately bringing deliverance to the chosen people, and plagues and defeat to their adversaries.  These plagues included turning the rivers to blood,  turning day into night, and the killing of the first-born of the Egyptians.

Participants in the Seder are urged to feel as if they themselves had been delivered from bondage into freedom, individually as well as communally.  Because you yourself were slaves, as the saying goes, in the land of Egypt.

But what is missing from the story is the many times God did not answer the Hebrews, the many times He essentially shrugged and said, well, you’ll just have to work this out on your own.  Stories are often like this; details go missing, or get altered and misshappened through constant retelling.  Often the storytellers change the tale to suit their purposes.

One detail left out of the standard ritual recounting is the existence of Hebrews who decided to remain in Egypt while their brethren escaped to freedom.   Life for those who stayed behind, for various reasons, had not been so bad under the Egyptians. 

These included the engineers and mechanics who labored over the technical details of the construction of the pyramids, as well as the professionals who organized the efforts of the slaves.  People who by dint of skill and no small portion of luck managed to assure themselves some better fortune. Through a knowledge of the arts and sciences, several of them managed to devise a kind of pitch that greatly facilitated the construction of the pyramids.  (The formula was handed down from the time of the Tower of Babel, or so they claimed). 

They viewed the success of Moses with an understandable skepticism.  Why should we follow this man, they reasoned among themselves, across a sea and over an uncrossable desert, to a land that may not even exist, promised (who knows?) by a god who only intermittently hears our cries? 

We can speculate as to the motivation of this group who stayed behind.  In any case, human nature being what is, even back in ancient times, we can imagine these Hebrews watching their counterparts cross the sea not without a twinge of regret.

Several generations passed and among these Hebrews who stayed behind in Egypt there arose a new generation who did not know Moses.  A certain consciousness of unspoken traditions runs deep, and among this generation were young people who desired to rejoin their now distant relatives who had chosen freedom.  After a series of trials no easier than those retold at Passover,  they managed to cross the sea and desert and rejoin the tribes who had settled in what was now the promised land. 

The Hebrews already in the promised land, however, were not at all pleased to see these young people, whom they saw as unwelcome reminders of the slavery they had endured.  So a council of elders convened to decide their fate. 

First they appealed to God, but God kept silent, almost as if to say:  you’ll need to work this out on your own.  Next, they proposed isolating the new arrivals in an empty part of the country for forty years.  They argued that they had endured forty years in the desert, so for the newly arrived a corresponding period was necessary and appropriate. 

But the young people cried out, and said that in forty years they would all be either too old or dead.  So the council rethought its proposal, and decided instead to isolate the people for a symbolic forty days, after which the new arrivals could be welcomed.  And so it was.  And in the following years more descendants of those Hebrews who stayed behind arrived, and all were required to spend this now traditional forty day period in isolation and reflection. 

One day a boy and a girl part-way through their time of isolation walked out into the nearby desert.  They saw a bush burning, burning with a flame, but the flame did not consume the bush.  The girl and the boy approached the burning bush, and intuitively they realized the divine presence inhabited the bush.  They stepped back, removed their sandals waited for a voice to speak to them, to give them some message. 

But the bush burned and burned, and gave no message.  It was as if the divine presence had decided: you’ll need to work this out for yourselves.  And so they watched the bush burn itself down to ashes, they watched the wind sweep the cold ashes away, and then they returned to the empty spaces to count out the remainder of their forty days.

Header image by Alexander Khodarev


This was another merciless July. After ten in the morning Raisa could no longer bear to be in the sun for more than a few minutes at a time. She had loved heat once, but in this town summer felt like trying to breathe with your face pressed into moist cotton. The blinds were down everywhere in the house, which made the atmosphere just about bearable. But there was no hope of being productive today. If only she could focus enough to read.

Raisa went to the bookshelves that stretched across one side of her living room and stared at them impatiently, as though they owed her a tale that would suit her attention span. A novella, maybe. A book of poems, but small poems. Riddles, or epigrams. Her fingers landed on a collection of stories by Cortázar, translated into her language. They came in small gulps, brief incantations of clocks and axolotls that didn’t ask too much of her, only that she give up something of herself to those letters on the page, decorated with squiggles unknown to the original Spanish. She read half the book like this, all the while unconsciously running her fingers through her hair to get the knots out. When she went briefly into the sunlight to take a late lunch, she noticed that her fingerprints were stained with black ink.

At two in the afternoon, heavy with heat and her belly full, Raisa started dreaming of a nap. A magnetic pull drew her back to the shelves. She was too tired to finish the volume she had started, but a strange ferment kept her scanning the uneven spines. One of them, one of them held the answer to a question she did not yet know. If she found the answer, she might find the question too, and that would solve so much.

The book she went to bed with was a cheap paperback with a snippet from a nineteenth century painting of a young man wearing a turban on its cover and a black mark marring its pages at the bottom. The spine was well cracked. Raisa had read it at least once before. It was hard to tell how many times she had read it since the novel spanned so many centuries Raisa thought she had been living in it her whole life. She began to wonder if she was really born in her own century, or if she, too, had lived life after life, so many adventures piled on top of each other that it was hard to remember them all. Did she appear when her mother gave birth to her, in her new and already forgotten country, or did she begin with the oldest story she had ever read?

Raisa had taken off her clothes to make lying in bed bearable, and for a moment she lifted the thin sheet sticking to her body to see if she still had the breasts she was accustomed to. They were there, they were there, still flatter than she might like, maybe even flatter than before. Raisa scraped a fingernail across her chest, expecting to see it filled with sweat and dead skin, but all that came off was dust.

By the time evening fell Raisa had lost track of the hour. In the fridge there was a half-bottle of fizzy pink wine and a few vegetables that promised relief from the day’s lingering warmth, but Raisa ate dry crackers and returned to her living room. Her eyes hurt, and her back felt as if someone had bent her carelessly before tossing her aside. Now she knew exactly what she wanted. It was a thick brick, its orange cover already warped from old moisture, with a rough line drawing of nude women and men and bulls its only embellishment. This was the kind of book she bought with the best intentions, but if she was honest with herself, its power lay more in being there, keeping its place on the shelf, than in being read.

Raisa did not want to read any more. What she wanted to do was let her eyes slip from the left pages, with their stately lines of ancient verse, to the equally labyrinthine German translation on the right. Raisa leafed through her memory to an evening many years earlier, when she ate a large slice of hash cake and picked up a book of old poetry to see if she could still decode it. Before her eyes, the words moved around to accommodate her, they seemed to hold hands so that she would know which belonged with which. But now there was no clarity, just the sensation of swimming among these marks on the page, miming their sounds with her lips as she went, briefly losing one only to brush against another. There were fabula and forma and flamma, and the longer Raisa spent floating among them the less she could tell if they were separate or one everlasting word, flowing unbidden from shape to shape.

It was around three in the morning, and though this was the time when Raisa usually felt most awake, she could not keep her papery eyelids from closing. Had she eaten at all today? She could not remember. She looked down at the skin of her hands, which looked whiter than she knew it, and for a moment she had the feeling that her flesh took up almost no space at all. It was so cool now in her house that she could finally sleep, but her bed was too empty. She would need a small and narrow place among her friends where she could slumber for an eternity, or at least until some restless person called to her. With a rustling sigh, Raisa shut herself and slipped onto the shelf.


Antonio had been many things, but at the time of the plague he was working as the super in an old building downtown on the Hudson. When the shadow fell upon our city, each of us felt the darkness in our own way, and each saw in that darkness a face that was always there. Antonio had the face of an actor. When he was younger, he was sometimes cast as a cop, sometimes as a hitman. Now he swept the floors in the hallway, dressed so finely that visitors assumed he was the owner.

It was only when the baseball season got cancelled that it occurred to him that something was deeply wrong. Then the residents started leaving, heading to the Hamptons, or Upstate, renting farmhouses in the Hudson Valley. Some of them contacted him to tell him they had gone. Others left in the night. He knew they were gone because it was his job to pick up the trash, and no more trash meant no more people. 

Antonio never considered leaving. Despite what some of the residents thought, he was not their butler. The way he saw it the super worked for the building. And a captain could never abandon his ship.

All of the longtime residents had Antonio stories, some of which were true. He whistled Rigoletto while he swept he halls. He sang arias in the boiler room. The young paralegal in 204 said that once Antonio had rushed over to help him put out a roast chicken on fire in his oven then stayed to make him a new dinner.

On the day the schools closed, Antonio got a call from Emilia in 503. She was crying on the phone, saying she was in the middle of a serious plumbing crisis. 

She answered the door in her bathrobe. The whole place was decorated with mementos of Jackson Hole. There were paintings of bison and wolves on the walls. A chandelier made of antlers hung from the ceiling behind her.

Antonio asked, “Is it the toilet or the tub?”

“The tub.”

“It’s ok. I’ll take care of it. Honestly, I prefer the tub. You wouldn’t believe what people think they can flush.”

She watched him take off his suit jacket and hang it on a folding hanger on the shower rod. She was drinking red wine from a coffee mug. They had known each other for at least a decade, but only in passing. She asked him how he was holding up.

He said he liked knowing how everything worked, how to fix things and help people. “A lot of our suffering? It’s up here,” he said, pointing to his head. “Not out there. Of course, sometimes it is out there too.” He lifted a long metal plumbing snake from his bag and laid it out on a small towel he’d brought with him.

She brought him a coffee mug and filled it with wine. “It’s a good bottle,” she said. “There’s no sense in keeping it any longer.”

She said she sometimes heard a dripping sound behind the wall in the bathroom.

He followed her in. It looked like expensive work – all Italian marble and brass, but he didn’t trust the plumbing. “There’s a lot you can hide in the walls,” he said.

They both pressed their ears to the marble tiles and listened. It was the closest they had ever been.

Neither of them heard it.

He sat back on the edge of the tub. She leaned against the doorframe. She had once told him that she recorded herself reading books on tape for money. Before that she had been an artist’s model. That was years ago though. She seemed so skinny now, almost skeletal. He couldn’t tell if it was from illness or exercise.

The tie of her robe came undone. “If the world is truly ending,” she said, “who knows? This could be our last chance.”

“It would be foolish,” he said, “to waste our last chance.”

Neither of them spoke for a moment. Antonio half-listened for the drip.

“I think I’m losing it,” she said. “Do you think it will take long to fix the tub?”

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll take care of it.”

She asked him if he wanted espresso with grappa. While she was gone, he removed a massive tangle of hair almost two feet long from the drain in her bathtub.

She said, “I don’t know what it would be like, you and me. You know my husband left me here? He’s in Wyoming with our daughter and his girlfriend. With all that’s going on. Do you believe it?”

“People can be selfish. They can’t see beyond that. That makes them do cruel things.” He found himself telling her then how he’d had a spiritual epiphany in the fall of 1986. “It was during the World Series. The Mets. You know, Game 6, Mookie Wilson, Bill Buckner, the spin on that ground ball. The whole thing. I had just lost a role in a film. Could’ve been a big one. So I was a Mets fan, of course, but a part of me was feeling what Buckner felt. I don’t know.” Afterwards, I lived on an ashram, during which the Mets fell apart forever. I learned about selfishness there. About letting go of it. My guru used to say, ‘think of an open bottle at the bottom of the ocean. When you close the bottle, the water inside is still the same as the water outside. The bottle is the self, you know, but, it’s all one ocean.’”

“I like that,” she said. “I wish I had married someone else. I’ve never really been a big fan of baseball. I like horses. I don’t know why I live in New York.”

“Baseball has meant a lot to me,” he said as he was putting away the plumbing snake and wiping it down with the towel. “Especially then. This was the World Series I’d been waiting for since I was a kid. The Mets looked like they were going to lose. Boston was finally going to break the curse Babe Ruth put on them and win in 6. Then the Mets tie it up. We’re in extra innings. Ray Knight’s on first. Kevin Mitchell’s on third. Mookie Wilson’s up. It’s a huge at-bat. He fouls off everything, waits for something he can hit. Then the pitcher gets exactly what he wants which is to make Mookie hit it on the ground in the infield. Standard play. The first baseman, Buckner, he’s seen it a thousand times. He trots over, puts his glove down. It’s basically over. Mookie’s going to be out, but something happens, and the ball goes through Buckner’s legs. Ruins his life. Makes Mookie a hero. The Red Sox curse holds. The Mets win Game 7. I’m walking through Queens. Everyone’s happy for once. I don’t know. It did something to me. Made me lose my way. All cause of that one play.”

She kissed him goodbye on the cheek. “It’s crazy that it took all this for us to really talk, you know. I feel like we have a spiritual connection. Maybe you could stop by, even if there’s nothing to fix.”

The next day she left for Wyoming.

Soon the building was almost totally unoccupied. It was just him and the old woman in apartment 404. She had been a public school teacher, geography, he thought, maybe history. She was in her late 80s and had somehow gotten hold of a new kitten. When her husband had died of heart attack in the elevator, it had been Antonio’s job to clean everything up with bleach and get the elevator back in service. One night, he rewrote her husband’s obituary on a piece of paper, folded it neatly, and then hid it behind one of the wooden panels in the elevator. He never told anyone. Now he would check on the teacher in the morning and help her with the litter box. She would leave him a cup of coffee on the little table near the door.

Then one day he opened the door and saw her surrounded by people in hazmat suits. He had his arms full of branches he had brought to her from the magnolia tree in the courtyard. They fell onto the kitchen floor.

After a minute of anxious gesturing, he realized that her daughter and her family had come to take their mother away. Their bodies were protected by shiny suits that seemed made for cleaning up radioactive ooze or walking on the moon. He stood by the door and watched them stuff some of her things into trash bags while the old woman yelled and wept a little, and then the daughter shooed him away by holding up a sign on which she’d written KEEP SAFE DISTANCE in black marker. They put the kitten in a cardboard box, taped it shut, and dragged the box down to the car.

The solitude worried him.

In the basement, the boiler was on its last legs. Upstairs the roof was leaking. A drip went down four floors along the plumbing near the east side. A slow trickle that would eventually rot the floor joists. Antonio would’ve called someone to fix it, but who would come?

He kept busy. He tried to sing as he swept the empty halls. He started with “O Sole Mio,” then “Don’t Stop Believing.” He decided he was probably losing his mind. He had stopped cutting his hair. It was wavy now and his beard was indecent. One afternoon he found himself with the master key chain in his hand, unlocking apartment 934.

The man who lived in the apartment was a partner in a restaurant group that owned a chain of Buddha-themed bars and restaurants. The last time Antonio saw him he said he was flying to Aspen to ride things out. He handed Antonio a bottle of sake. “This is good stuff, brother,” he said. “I can’t take it on the plane, so it’s yours. Be well.” Then he asked Antonio to help him carry his luggage down to his SUV.

Antonio saw that the man had left behind dozens of bottles of sake and wine. He poured himself a glass of wine and made instant miso from the cabinet over the sink. Outside the window, he saw the sun setting over the Hudson. In the sky over New Jersey where he would normally see planes descending towards Newark, he saw only red clouds.

The world was emptying. He poured himself another glass and left the bottle on the counter while he went into Apartment 936. This was where Mick and Mark lived, TV puppeteers who had left behind only an expired can of clam chowder. He took it just in case.

905 belonged to a young family who had fled to New Jersey.

903 was unoccupied.

901 was taped shut and marked with caution tape. The cleaning crew he’d scheduled had never arrived. It had belonged to a pair of dental hygienists who had gotten sick early.

He swept the halls. There was no more trash, but he still needed to keep the dust at bay. Dust was a fact of the world. While he swept, he thought about acting. He recited scenes from The Outsiders, playing all the parts. He did Mean Streets, Raging Bull, Serpico, then the monologues from Macbeth. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace or whatever. He let himself overact a little. He held the broom handle like a microphone. He picked up the expired can of clam chowder and said, “Djou fuck my wife?” He let his arms swing a bit, took pleasure in the sound of his voice in the empty hall. “Look at my fuckin hands. I got small hands.” He threw the can down the hallway, and shouted, “Stay Gold, Pony Boy!”

That night he showered and cut his hair and shaved. He put on a double-breasted suit and went up to Emilia’s apartment and lay down on the cow skin rug. He did not blame her for leaving. A long-horned bull’s head, mounted above the bed, stared out blankly towards the Hudson.

The air inside seemed stale. He opened a window and heard sirens. He shut it again. He was naked now. He threw the cow skin over his shoulders and slept beneath the bull.

In the middle of the night, he heard the drip behind her bathroom wall. He thought there could be another leak in the roof. He heard the sound in 603, 703, 803. Inside 903, he heard a waterfall. He was wearing the pants from his suit and a cowboy duster from Emilia’s apartment. He turned on the lights and saw people in hazmat suits. Their faces were shielded in plastic. He could not see who they were. Someone said something unintelligible. He sat down on the bed. He heard beeping. He told whoever could hear him that they should not be afraid. He repeated what his guru had said about the bottle at the bottom of the sea. He said, “It’s all one ocean, baby.” And then he left them.

He turned a corner and turned again. He was back on the East side but the color of the doors was wrong. He walked down three flights of stairs and found himself one floor up. It was impossible for him to get lost in his own building, but he was lost. The hallways seemed longer, the ceilings higher. The windows on the West side had always looked out over the Hudson. From the upper floors on the East side you were supposed to see Union Square. Now when he looked out of the windows he didn’t recognize the buildings in the dark. He saw only faint red lights in the sky.

He heard a sound behind him and when he turned he saw another figure in a hazmat suit. This time he ran. He went into the stairwell and came out on the fifth floor and went into Emilia’s apartment and locked the door. Inside, he sat on her bed and stared up at the bull’s head above him. He had helped Emilia and her husband hang that useless head from lag screws drilled into the concrete. This was maybe a decade ago when they first moved in. The daughter had sat on the floor and watched them. The head must’ve weighed 100 pounds. Now he looked up at the bull and asked it, “Buck, buck, how many horns do I have up?”

It was so late, but he could not sleep. He found himself watching the final play of Game 6 of the ‘86 World Series again. He was watching the game, and he was watching himself watch it. It was 1986 again. Mookie and Buckner. Stanley in his wind-up. The ball chipped off the end of the bat, spinning weirdly, taking an odd hop off a divot or a rock too small to be seen on TV, then rolling under Buckner’s glove, through this legs, Mookie running hard realizing the crazy thing that has just happened, the miracle, and Buckner the calamity that everyone will say is the curse. He will be the scapegoat of the game, the season, the fucking decade, and the crowd at Shea Stadium is just losing it.

Antonio went out into the hallway and listened. He said to himself, Mookie Wilson and Bill Buckner are one. The bat and the ball are parts of the whole. The dust in the hall and the one who sweeps it away. He said, “In my father’s house there are many rooms. I go ahead to prepare a place for you.”

Before he left us, he swept the empty hall.

The Story of the Goat

Wherein it is shown that patience might be a virtue, were we to wait long enough to find out.

When, midway through their evening meal, the company had begun reminiscing about foods they wished to eat again, once they could return to the stores and buy anything they wished, the cook began his tale.

He had overheard the story from his children’s swim instructor, who had begun to teach swimming online after her epiphany: if her ex could be a dry drunk, her students could be dry swimmers.

Goggles and swimsuit were optional, water was extraneous, drowning impossible. None of the parents bothered to watch, as they did poolside, anxiously trying to interpret erratic flailing motions, asthmatic coughs, and sudden plunges while their eyes flitted from child to child, unsure which was their own. The cook looked up sometimes from the cabbage and squash he was dicing—he noted in the background other parents on sewing machines, sifting flour, or sharpening knives—and listened.

One girl used a blue yoga mat as her water. Another had a beach towel. A boy was in what looked like a yurt and wearing a fur hat with flaps. In the screen square beside him a boy stood in a bathtub with a full-face snorkel mask, for which the instructor admonished him.  

Today we are going to learn how to breathe while you swim. But first, I will demonstrate how to use your arms. This is freestyle.

She raised her short sleeve, revealing her tattoo—Don’t Sink, Swim—and pointed to her tricep. This is all you use, this muscle here. Everything else is relaxed. Your shoulders down.

You do not cup your hands. This is not 1952. Look at Michael Phelps—your hand is flat, fingers together, your wrist is firm. Your hands are there to balance you in the water. Same with your feet. She demonstrated a few strokes in the air, firm, convincing.

When you need to take a breath you go up as your hips turn, your body rolls, you open your mouth, you close it before your hips shift back. You have to be patient. If you are patient, water won’t get in your mouth. 

Do you know what patience is?

Waiting, one boy said, before the others could speak.

The instructor waited. No one else spoke. After a minute she said, That’s patience. Not rushing. Letting it come to you.

Patience is a virtue. Do you know what that means? It means it’s good. It’s a good thing. You want to have it. Can anyone think of a time you have been patient?

When I was sick.

Waiting for cookies to come out of the oven.

Waiting for my birthday.

Uh-huh. When is your birthday?

August 16.

I see. That’s four months. That’s a lot of patience. Good. I’m going to tell you a story. It’s a story I read in a book when I was a child, but I don’t know what the book was. I’m going to call it The Three Farmers. They lived in the Fertile Crescent. The Cradle of Civilization. That’s where life started to get complex. People started to depend on each other in complicated ways. Like if you don’t pay for this swim lesson, I don’t have enough money to pay the rent, and then my landlord can’t fix his septic system and there’s poop everywhere and yuck, right?

So back then in the Fertile Crescent there were three wheat farmers. The year before had been a bad harvest, there had been a plague of locusts, and at the end of the summer the locusts laid eggs and died and now the eggs were waiting to hatch again, just in time to destroy this year’s harvest.

The locusts are patient, one girl spoke up.

Yes, the instructor laughed loudly, yes they are.

I don’t think it counts if they didn’t know they were waiting, a boy argued. Like if you are sleeping. Sometimes I try to sleep so I don’t have to wait. Like for school to start.

You can’t sleep for a year, the girl said.

Right, the instructor said. So the farmers consulted the wise man, every village had one, always a man, and the farmers were men too, that’s just how it was, somehow they muddled through, and the wise man said, Plant your wheat crop two months late this year. Prepare beside your fields nesting spots for the locust bird—I don’t know what kind of bird that is, but they eat locusts, this is me talking, not the wise man—and when the birds have hatched and fledged—meaning they can fly—they will eat the baby locusts before they can ruin the crop.

The farmers grumbled about waiting two months, because there was a risk the crop wouldn’t be ripe before the nights got too cold. One of the farmers decided not to wait, another waited just one month, and the third waited the whole two months. They all built rows of straw-lined birdhouses on poles and soon the locust birds were nesting all around the fields, and the nests were full of eggs.

The first farmer kept checking on the eggs, and after a week he thought something was wrong and maybe the shells were too tough for the birds to open. So he cracked one and saw the shriveled form with its folded wings and wet feathers, have you ever seen that? Uh-huh, so you know what I’m talking about. He decided he had waited too long, and the bird had drowned inside the egg. He cracked all the other eggs, and he had waited too long for all of them. None of the chicks lived.

But— one girl began. The instructor held up her hand. We’ll get there.

Another farmer waited two weeks and the eggs hatched, and he watched the parents bring grubs to the nest, but as days went by and the nestlings did not fly, he looked at their small wings and worried they were atrophying, getting weak, from lack of use. The feathers were still soft, like plant starts that haven’t been hardened by the sun and wind. He pushed one from the nest and it fell to the ground without using its wings. He rushed from nest to nest, afraid it would be too late for all the others, and pushed the baby birds out, and they all fell to the ground and didn’t move. He had waited too long.

No he hadn’t, the children stamped and shook their heads. The instructor held up her hand. Patience.

The third farmer waited for the fledglings to fly on their own, and they swooped over the fields just as the eggs were hatching into little baby locusts, and ate them all up. Success, right? But by then the locusts from the others’ farmers’ fields had hatched and they began to grow and soon ate up all their wheat and then came after the third farmer’s field. His birds could not keep up with them all, now that the locusts were ten times as big and ravenous, and only a small part of the harvest was saved, and the wheat kernels were smaller because the crop had been planted late. So the farmer had only enough to save for seed for the next year.

The first and second farmers said, See, it wouldn’t have made a difference if we had waited. The birds couldn’t do anything against the locusts. We will all starve anyway. 

They could eat the birds, the yurt boy said. Or the locusts.

They could sift the bugs out of last year’s flour, one of the girls said.

They could dig up roots, the other said.

Do you want to hear what they did? the instructor asked.

But before she could finish the story, three of the children were called to wash their hands so they could eat eggless date-paste cookies, pickle sunchokes, and punch down the bread dough before it rose one last time.

Only the boy in the yurt was still on the screen, objecting to the plate that had been put in front of him. He didn’t want sausage.

It’s different from yesterday, the father was saying. I did something different to it.

I’ll eat it, the instructor said. Pass some to me.

It’s our goat, the father explained, his face looming larger and larger in the screen until all the cook could see was the black rectangle of his pupil, deep enough to drown in.

19 Stairs




Thud.. thud..

“Mummy … what are you doing? It’s still dark outside” said Sameera.

“The cat is here…” replied her mother.

“Ok, go back to sleep after that” said Sameera in half-sleep.

“Its 5.30 already.” There was sternness­­­ in her mother’s voice.

The old woman of around 60 years opened the door of her ground floor apartment. Outside, a cat was hanging on the kitchen window grill. Seeing the old woman with a bowl of milk, the cat jumped down and came running towards her.

“Meowwwwwwwww.. meowwwwwww”

“Here” said the woman while keeping the milk bowl outside.

She then shut the door, purified herself by a bath, and prepared food offerings for the family ancestors, particularly her husband who passed away 2 months back.

“Get up, I am going now, close the door” she said to Sameera as she wore her facemask and covered herself up in a shawl.

 “Mummy …. The situation outside…” protested Sameera.

“Keep quiet and bolt the door” responded her mother as she walked out of the door with a thali of food and a glass of water.

Sameera was moved by the unfaltering commitment of her mother to her father even in the hostile situation they were in.

“Can all this simply be a dream. My father dying of lung cancer and now all this… Ventilators, lung congestion, pneumonia, cough, fever…. Am I dreaming? Death is such a terrifying event then why would I with all diligence invite it into my dream and continue seeking it? Have I unleashed this suffering on the world to avenge my father? But is my mother and me apart from it? “

Sameera is immobilized by her own thoughts.

“Ting tong…” rang the doorbell.

“The door is still open!” Sameera’s mother walked inside the house.

“Did you find the cow?” asked Sameera.

“Yes, she ate everything. I wasn’t sure if the cow will eat bitter gourd sabzi with roti. Your father loved it.”

Their conversation was interrupted by the glaring police siren from the street.

“Why are the police here?” wondered Sameera.

“Ohh that woman… There was this young woman walking on the street with both her hands completely stretched out, like a scarecrow, holding one bag in each hand. A man wearing a facemask came riding a bike and took away her purse. These facemasks are definitely proving to be effective protection for many… And the way she was holding her purse… as if inviting the onlookers to steal it. Now she is sitting on the bus stop, crying. Someone must have called the police.”

“Ohh.” there was shock in Sameera’s voice.

“To be careful is one thing but this is foolish…

Bolt the door Sameera.”

Sameera and her mother had been battling one crisis after another. But this crisis had come as a welcome distraction to their grief. It had given them something else to put their minds on, something else to discuss, something else to strategize about. And most important, it was part of someone else’s world. Even though it had entered their universe, it was still outside.



“Going on your daily stroll up the 19 stairs.” said Sameera to the cat as she closed the door.

“Meowww”. There were still some milk drops on the whiskers of the cat from her venture at Sameera’s house.

The cat tiptoed to the first floor and landed herself on the doormat. There was a huge lock on the apartment door for the last two days. The numbness of silence was broken by the melancholic sound of the clock coming from the apartment. “Tik..tik..tik”

“I can smell fear everywhere. This empty house is reeking of it.” the cat thought while she licked her whiskers and paw clean.

“Thud”. The silence was broken by a bag of garbage thrown out of the balcony from the second floor.

“Get out… get out.” commanded Chetna, a woman of around 50 years as she opened the door of the second-floor apartment and pushed her husband, Jai, out. “You did touch the dustbin.”

Jai gave a sigh, and without saying a word covered his mouth with a handkerchief and started to walk downstairs. As he was walking downstairs, he stumbled upon Mr. Joshi, a 68-year-old man from the top floor apartment.

“Sharma Ji, what happened?” enquired Joshiji.

“Namaste Joshiji, you know the situation. “said Jai Sharma as he shrugged his shoulders.

‘How is Bhabiji doing?” There was concern in Joshiji’s voice.

“Since the past few days, it has been more difficult than usual and now all this… The only respite is that as of now she exhibits phobia of only garbage and germs…

We have talked to the doctor and added an additional dose of sleep-inducing medicine. It’s best she sleeps more.

If you see her why don’t you also try to explain the situation to her, calm her down? I am really worried about her” said Sharmaji.

“Hmm I will try.” nodded Joshiji

“During the self-lockdown, I would drop her to her mother’s house in the morning and pick her up in the evening. That gave me ample time to clean, cook…

But now…. I don’t know what to do. My mother-in-law is also worried. She feels if something happened to her how will her daughter cope. She wants to keep a distance now.”

“If my guess is correct your mother-in-law must be more than 80 years old?” inquired Mr. Joshi.

“Yes, she is 81.” shared Sharmaji.

“My daily stroll around the block was such a relief. Now all has stopped. It’s like “God is dead.” There was anger is Sharmaji’s voice.

“Dhruvvv.. Dhruuv” called a woman in a frantic loud voice from behind the second-floor apartment door.

“Are you still there?” she added.

“I must go. I have to stand in the sun, disinfect myself and be safe.” said Sharmaji with a smile on his face.

“But Sharmaji, everyone is staying in and you are going out to stay safe?”

Sharmaji laughed at the irony “Safe…We fear for our and our loved one’s safety a little too much. I know fear from very close Joshiji, and I know what it can do if left untamed. Fear is an unnameable, unreasonable, unjustified terror that can paralyze us?

From what I can see, we all are in its grips. If we continue to fear this way, we will also soon need medicines to move through normal life. Joshiji, I fear Fear” Sharmaji walked downstairs while saying this, laughing.

“Dhruvvvvv.” said Mrs. Sharma with her ears plugged into the other side of the door. Blood was pounding in her ear. Her vision was distorted and blurry and everything around looked demonic to her.

She could feel the room holding her heart shrinking moment by moment. The light that filled that room was vanishing and soon there was only darkness left. Someone was hysterically banging the door of that room- “dubh… dubhh…dhubb…”

“Hello, darkness my only friend,

I have come to talk to you again.”- Mrs. Sharma heard the ringtone of her phone.

“Mummy..mummy.. I am not feeling good” said a panicked Mrs. Sharma to the phone.

“Where is your husband” asked the voice behind the phone.

“I threw him out of the apartment. He touched the dustbin”

“Did you take your medicines today?” asked the voice, concerned.

“Yes.”  Mrs. Sharma was almost palpitating.

“Ok… Let’s do what the doctor said now.

Count from 100 to 1.

Let’s count together…

100 100

99 99

98 98

97 97

96 96 95 94

That’s too fast. Slow down…

95 95

94 94

Mr. Joshi was walking past the second floor when he stopped to hear something.



Joshiji gave a sigh, climbed upstairs towards his apartment on the third floor, and rang the bell. He removed his facemask as he entered the house.

Going straight to the washbasin he said –

“I just met Sharmaji in the stairways. He is miserable, to be in house arrest with a mentally ill wife is very challenging.”

He looked at his wife, son, daughter-in-law and their three daughters, realizing they were in no better situation in their overcrowded apartment than Sharmaji. Just that their challenge was different.

Even though they all had been living in that apartment for years now, but interestingly, they gathered together only during dinner time. The Father, Joshiji, and mother, Mrs. Joshi, ran a beauty parlor down the street and were in the parlor from morning to late evening. The son left in the morning around 8 am for work and returned home only by 10.30 pm. The two grandchildren went to school at 7 am and a 4-month-old toddler was left with the daughter-in-law. A house help was present during the day to help the daughter-in-law with household chores and managing the grandchildren. But these were unusual times and these unusual circumstances had created an unusual togetherness of 24/7.

“There are very few people outside today.” said Joshiji, the father.

“Well… they have found 2600 people in the Tabliqi Markaz today. Many have been found infected and are refusing treatment. I don’t understand what were they all doing there?” said the mother.

“They say God will save them. But God is very busy nowadays. In times like this, one should learn to take care of themselves.” responded the son slyly.

“Phhhhhh” The whistle of the pressure cooker went off. The daughter-in-law went running to the kitchen. Soon the house was filled with the mouth-watering smell of chole.

The two little girls who were playing in the balcony came running and went straight to the kitchen demanding” Mummy, is it ready, I am hungry?”

“I am very hungry, Mummy.” said the other one.

“You both ate Maggi 15 minutes back. How can you be hungry so soon? It will still take time to cook”

“Are you making chawal or puri?” asked the older sister.

“Make puriiii”

“Yes puriii”

“Go outside and play. Whatever is cooked you will eat that”

“Rama, get some water for papa” said the son from the living room.

“Go out and play” said the daughter-in-law.

“What are you saying Ratan” asked the daughter-in-law to the son from the kitchen.

“What?” said the son.

“What is your father saying?” asked the daughter-in-law to her older daughter.


“Glass of water”

“Your father is asking for tea.”

Small apartments were overcrowded not just by people but by sounds too. It was becoming increasingly difficult to make out what was being said, what was being implied, and what was being asked for. Women of the house found themselves more burdened than usual.

“Here” said the daughter-in-law giving a cup of tea to her husband.

“Not tea Rama, get some water for Papa.” demanded the son.

“What are these papers, Papa” asked the son pointing to the papers in his father’s hand.

“I have created my will, beta.” There was hesitation in the father’s voice.

“What? Why Papa?” the son is taken aback.

“Times are like this.” He said while looking at his wife. Rama gave a glass of water to her father-in-law.

“Your mother has also written her will.”

“Mummy, Papa…nothing will happen to you. We just need to be careful.” the son pleaded to his parents.

“Of course, I know beta. This is just precautionary. It’s dawning on me that this is going to be more difficult than I thought. We have to prepare for it in every way. We all are in a nasty situation and people are acting foolish. Anything can happen.”

“Papa we will be fine.”

The father smiled as he looked at his son. With half a smile on his lips, the son looked away hiding his face.

Suddenly the room was filled with frantic cries of the four-month-old granddaughter. The daughter-in-law went rushing to her.

“We need to buy more diapers” suggested the father.

“We need to stop using diapers and start using cloth now. Yesterday no one came to collect the garbage.” said the mother.

“Meowww.. meowww.” This was a ritualistic sound for food and an invitation for the little girls to play with the cat. “Dadi, the cat is outside. Open the door. I want to play with her.”  Pleaded the older granddaughter.

“meowww” The other one imitated the cat and her gestures.

“Beta, remember what Modiji said. We are in isolation. No meeting anyone. It can be dangerous to you and them.” said the son to his daughters.

“I will play with you. What should we play?” he added.

“Ringa Ringa Roses, Pocket full of poses…” The girls started chanting the popular nursery rhyme together.

Meowww… meowww

Joshiji opened the door of the apartment to scare away the cat, “Shoooo…” said Joshiji while beating his foot on the floor.


The cat was perplexed by their reaction. No one paid any heed to her.  Lying in the sun the cat breathed in the silence of the surroundings.

“What are they so afraid of. They all have covered their faces. Who are they hiding from?

Who is this enemy?

Is he huge? Does he have fangs? Pointed teeth? Deadly claws? Is he a shapeshifter? Is it around and I don’t recognize him?

Whoever it is, he is extremely shrewd. He has managed to break man the mass to man the unit and filled them up with fear.

I must find him.” There was determination in the cat’s eyes.

“Maybe we can be friends.” thought the cat as she embarked on her quest and walked out of the apartment complex.

The Expat’s Tale

Rosenkrantz and Gildenstern are chatting over Skype.

“Hey, I just got an email from my cousin Don.”

“Which one’s that?”

“He’s the one we visited in Philly a few years back. Took us on that ‘unwritten history tour,’ as he called it. Showed us where he saw cops try to let a fire sweep the Occupy encampment, where people were dancing in the streets after Obama won, and the memorial to Norm—the homeless guy with the viking horns.”

“Oh yeah. I just remember him taking us out for the good ice cream and then to that basement show in South Philly. What’s he up to?”

“Dude moved to Korea.”

“Korea? Why Korea?”

“Job stuff, but the way he tells it, got tired of Nazis, left the country.”

“I thought those people always moved to Canada.”

“He doesn’t like poutine. Prefers his french fries ‘unadorned.’”

“Fair enough, but Korea? Now? What’s going on over there? I can’t remember if it’s good or bad anymore.”

“Lemme see what he says.”

On Monday, February 10th, my office was buzzing over Parasite winning best picture at the Academy Awards. In the following days, the movie was back in Korean theaters, even with English subtitles, to do a victory lap. This was the face Korea was presenting to the world. First K-Pop, then the Olympics, and now the Oscars, the world was going to be talking about Korea.

The country had 27 confirmed infections.

Corona came quietly to Korea, less a storm than a susurrus. I’ll admit that I was largely unaware of it. I was on vacation in Ireland when the first case crossed the border from China and, upon my return, had the sense from colleagues that it wasn’t anything to be too concerned about. On my way to the bus stop one morning, I ducked into a convenience store to buy a mask. The sight of all the people wearing them made me aware of my own uncovered face and I didn’t want to be rude.

A few days later I’d buy a second mask and that would be the last mask I’d get my hands on for a month.

The Korean government was taking coronavirus seriously by the time I returned to school. They were testing anyone who’d traveled from China and encouraging people who were sick to stay home. I learned about that after one of the other expats at my school came down with a cold. The school sent them home for a week, with pay, and no deduction from their sick days. The government was covering the cost of anyone who had to miss work due to illness.

At this point, we were not thinking about self-isolating. Had we been instructed to, I would have found it hard to differentiate that from my daily life: I lived alone, was going to work in a largely empty school that was on break, and rarely went out for dinner or drinks. I had come back from vacation with the intention of going out more: to movies, to museums, to nature parks, to really get out and immerse myself in Korea. My family in the States had been asking when I’d be coming back home, where it was safe.

Timing is everything.

On Valentine’s Day, I had a hospital appointment. I’d had my annual physical before going on break and my blood tests showed abnormal liver function. The nurse suggested I come back in a month to see if the levels had changed and so there I was.

Korea is a mountainous country with everything in Busan on the side or in the shadow of steep, heavily forested peaks. To get to the hospital, I had to climb through a neighborhood built without cars in mind, navigating the narrow path full of switchbacks and dog-legs, cul-de-sacs and dead-ends, a narrow concrete canyon snaking up a mountain.

I alternated between claustrophobia from the houses arcing over and above me, to vertigo from  looking down on the roofs of buildings I’d just passed. I was using my map app to direct me, but some of the turns were so tight and onto paths so small that I swore my phone must be wrong, that these paths must lead to someone’s home. I worried that a resident would come flying out at me, flapping their arms and yelling about trespassing, me violating a taboo I had no way of knowing about and inadvertently learning lots of new and colorful Korean.

But the neighborhood was completely abandoned.

Doors were nailed sideways across entryways and no window was unbroken. Notices, presumably of eviction, were pasted to walls throughout. All the houses looked fine though. Nothing seemed to be falling apart or over. The neighborhood had just been cleared of people. Moving boxes with pictures and broken toys still lay on some of the floors. It had been like this long before coronavirus emerged.

Busan, like so many places, is in the midst of a real estate boom fueled by capital that doesn’t know what to do with itself. You’ll find huge swathes of land being cleared and redeveloped to house exactly as many people as lived there before, but at a much higher price. All the empty houses around me lay in the shadow of a university hospital, a prime region for clearance and redevelopment. The only remaining population was the few stray cats that eyed me with territorial wariness.

The hospital had changed since my visit the month before. Then, I’d just walked in to find the multi-lingual nurse who’d led me from station to station throughout the complex. Now two attendants flanked the front door and took each person’s temperature. Then we were given a face mask if we didn’t already have one and had to apply hand sanitizer under the supervision of a security guard. Rather than have an air of menace, like a bouncer demanding an ID, this felt more like a concierge welcoming you to the hospital and directing you to a place to rest before your name was called. Nothing told me to be afraid.

My visit went fine, by the way. My liver function was better, the doctor told me I was too fat, and I left to meet my friends for drinks. They were preparing to return to the US and UK respectively, and this was a chance to give them a proper sendoff. We went to Seomyeon, the densely-populated entertainment district, and watched couples celebrating Valentine’s Day. The weather had turned warmer and everyone was breaking out their spring gear, walking around, enjoying the opportunity to leave their homes after being shut up all winter.

The country had 28 confirmed infections.

On Tuesday, February 18th, the 31st case of coronavirus in Korea was confirmed. They were a member of Shincheonji, an evangelical Christian sect that says church attendance is mandatory, encourages aggressive recruitment, and preaches that illness is a sign of sin and God’s wrath. This combination means you have people who refuse to admit they’re ill regularly meeting and interacting with both each other and strangers, often coming into close physical contact. In the coming days, coronavirus and Shincheonji would become the public face of Korea.

On the 19th, my expat colleague and I asked our Korean co-worker what was up with this Shincheonji thing, and from how my co-worker rolled her eyes, I wondered if I was about to learn the Korean for, “Shincheonji, these fucking guys.” She described them as a cult, but at best a local embarrassment and nuisance, her tone echoing my friends in the States when they would talk about the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or Scientologists.

The country had 51 confirmed infections.

The next day, neither she nor any of my other Korean colleagues were in the office. Self-isolation had begun and everyone had gone on lockdown.

Except the order wasn’t sent out to expats. The government mandated social distancing from March 24th through April 5th and I was told about this in an email I received on March 26th. Before then, from February 20th on, the only instructions my fellow expats in the school and I received was a series of posters in the halls telling us, via pictures, to wear a mask, wash our hands, cough into our elbows, and, while we could not read the Korean underneath it, we think it said do not rim a chicken.

The country had 104 confirmed infections.

On Saturday, February 22nd, I went to the beach for a friend’s birthday party. In retrospect, it was self-isolation that was keeping it clear, but I thought the beach was empty because of it being late February and chilly. A few people were fishing, children dug holes or skipped stones here and there, and the occasional couple walked along the adjoining road. I met my friend and his group halfway along the shore, far from anyone else. A brutal wind kicked up driving us into a nearby café where we had the glassed-in roof deck to ourselves. That evening, we gathered at the same place in Seomyeon I’d taken my friends the week before. Whereas couples had occupied the space then, now it was largely empty with small groups of foreigners, and only foreigners, clustering together. I asked my friend, “How does it feel to be LARPing Pandemic?”

The country had 433 confirmed infections. Busan reported its first 3.

By Monday the 24th, I was getting daily text messages, in Korean, detailing where each confirmed patient had traveled locally. A website was set up collating all the information so you could see on a map which places were safe and which were potential infection vectors. Nothing near my home, my school, or my commute was tagged, and I was calm. All the information coming in, and there was a lot of information coming in, allowed me to differentiate what I should be afraid of and what I shouldn’t. Even though I lived on a street with several hospitals, I could check the map and see that none of them were currently housing coronavirus patients.

The country had 833 confirmed infections, Busan 26.

On the 25th, I woke up to an email from my sister asking if I was all right. That evening, I received a similar email from my brother. Later, a friend messaged me on Facebook asking if I was okay, saying that things were looking pretty crazy from America. This had become the new public face of Korea.

I remembered the Stewart Lee routine where he describes checking his email on the day of the London Tube bombing without knowing about the attack. People from all over the world messaging him to ask, “Are you all right?” and him replying, “I’m fine, how are you?” It had never occurred to me to be afraid, even with the numbers climbing. I could see how the government was responding to the crisis and, more importantly, how it was keeping citizens informed. I recorded a video of me drinking whiskey and describing the situation, saying how the Korean government had botched their response to MERS in 2015 by treating it like a PR problem instead of a public health one. I described Shincheonji and pushed back against conspiracy theories I’d been seeing about them intentionally getting infected and spreading the disease. And I described going out as normal—which was still pretty rare for me—because we knew what was going on. Counter-intuitively, the stories coming out of Korea, the high numbers of infections people were seeing, were a sign of things going well: my government was addressing and staying on top of the problem.

On March 9th, when I posted the video, the country had 7,513 confirmed infections. The United States had 213. On March 10th, the US had 472 cases, an increase of more than the total number of deaths due to the virus in Korea. On March 20th, ten days later, the US had more cases than Korea. On March 23rd, the US reported more new cases in one day than Korea had total.

News reports were now describing the Korean response to coronavirus as a rousing success, a model to be followed by the rest of the world. When I called family in the States, they fumed that Korea tested more people in a day than the US had total. An orientation seminar at my school on how to do online teaching opened with a video documenting all the praise Korea had received in response to their handling of the crisis. The country was buzzing with pride again.

Meanwhile, my friends and family were no longer asking if I was okay. No one asked me if I was coming home. I watched the news every day and started to worry about what coronavirus might do to the people over there.

“That’s a cheery ending.”

“Well, that’s kind of Don’s thing. ‘Ha ha, fun fun fun. Oh, look at this hole, let’s get closer to the hole, look down in the hole we are in the hole, we are falling into the hole, we are deeper in the hole, there will be no escaping the hole, all is hole, this is our life now.’”

“Bet he’s fun at parties.”

“I’m surprised he didn’t start talking about fascism or weird music. That’s kind of his thing.”

“Must be mellowing in his old age.”

The Wall

The Wall is the Wall; it has never changed or evolved from the first day I conceived of it. In its unchanging state lies perfection: no part is different from the rest.

To gaze upon the Wall is to see it whole, as it first took shape in My mind.  Now it has always been, a closed form without beginning or end, both boundary and rampart that at once defines and compels.  What is harbored within or excluded without is determined by Me, the exertion of My will embodied in the unyielding substance that is the Wall.

Indistinct figures move beyond the Wall, but their nature is not important.  Within is as I wish it; what lies beyond may do as it will.  Those who live within the Wall may someday be expelled; those who dwell without shall never enter.  With the inviolability of the Wall comes the assurance of purity, which I will maintain.

Those within our realm who opposed the Wall have been thrown into disarray.  Their indifference to our security has provoked the wrath of those who understand My policies, and they have been driven from the government, which is now controlled by Me.  The purity of our people cannot be contaminated by those among us who would assent to its adulteration, who indeed were admitted to our realm only through the weakness of those predecessors who do not understand its importance as I do.

I stand upon the Wall and I gaze out into the wastes beyond, the lands of the people who are not us.  Then I turn and look to our realm, whose purity, I have begun to realize, has been tainted by the actions of those who are not truly like us, though they may pretend to be.  The Wall may be a bulwark against contamination, but perhaps some of those within it are now suspect.

Something must be done about this.  I will speak to an aide.

My own tower, which was built by and for Me, is taller than the government building I now occupy.  I accede to this, for observing the trappings of office is important.  Everyone knows that whether or not I am in residence the tower is Mine, for My name is engraved upon its face.  Wives and children have lived there; advisers still come to consult about the growth of My fortune, now in the hands of My sons.  In the citadel of governance, it is generals and counselors who crowd about Me, anxious to hear My thoughts on the tremendous forces at My command and upon which of our enemies I may order their fury released.

The priests and ecclesiastics propitiate me, declaring My principles harmonious with those of their own faith.  They know that this is not true, but their followers, they know, do not care.  The generals, trained to obedience, say nothing about My youthful behavior.  The calls of the thread-worn scholars do not affect Me; starved of funds and hated by those they would teach, they can but hurl imprecations from their undefended towers.  Those who cry news I dislike are shouted down.

As a young man, already in the fullness of My potency though not yet of My puissance, I built upon the chattels of My father, amassed in collecting rents from the poor.  Unsatisfied with such tactics, I pursued My fortunes in richer districts, where opulent residences and gaming establishments commanded acclaim as well as wealth.  My name became a watchword, My exploits remarked by the powerful and vulgar alike.  Foreign laborers toiled to erect My edifices; criers extolled My other conquests. 

 My sons I have installed in prominent positions within My business empire, though it is clear to all that they shall never rival Me.  My business interests are extensive; they cast a skein of cords binding moneyed interests to mine.  The nature of My affairs I share only with My sons, such husbands of My daughters as I trust, and the lieutenants whose fortunes are tied to Mine, who would fall if ever I fell.

At times in the fullness of My youth I suffered setbacks, of which I do not speak.  When questioned of them I lie, and when My word is challenged I rage.  In My drive for supreme office I promised various disclosures, but once in power I reneged.  In some quarters these inquiries continue, and a part of My power is expended in deflecting them, which angers Me.

I walk the parapets of the Wall.  Elsewhere I am conveyed, even over short distances, in vehicles of singular design, but My tour of the Wall is always conducted in solitary reflection.  The voices that drift up behind Me fade as the night wind whips My scarf into a long streamer.  Perhaps it is visible from the wastes beyond; a bright pennant proclaiming My creation as surely as if I had engraved My name upon it.

Greatness such as Mine gives rise to enemies, whose numbers have continued to swell in My ascendency.  Women are attracted by My power, just as the envious are driven to hatred and resentment, and it is natural that I should act upon such opportunities.  Those who would batten upon this are gnats, but even gnats can enrage, and in My anger I give vent to brief bursts of invective.  Scribblers study these writings for indications of My inner state, which is unchanging.

I gaze across the chill wastes, into which those who dwell wrongfully among us, many now caged, will in time be expelled.  The wind, unheard, stirs bare distant limbs; a moment later I feel the breeze ruffle My collar and briefly lift My own locks.

It is cold upon the Wall.  The attraction of young women no longer warms Me, and the anger I feel settles into My stomach not as a smoldering coal but as a core of ice.  Many of My ventures have foundered, responsibility for which I brusquely disclaim, and whose consequences must increasingly be managed by men I am compelled to trust.  Yet the Wall remains:  My supreme achievement, eternal from its moment of creation.

Built with funds from the public treasury, it was never held in My name, so could not be lost in litigation.  Nonetheless it is Mine, as even my enemies acknowledge.  Works emblazoned with My name may fall or be wrested from My hands, but the Wall will forever memorialize Me.

The wind rises, cold for those who can feel it.  The Wall does not move, for the gusts and jolts of the world cannot affect it.  Its nature is My own, whatever the turmoil of My daily life:  Pure, all-encompassing, self-contained, and unmoving.


The first sentence of the story is by Donald J. Trump; the rest is by the author.


René Vne, being neither here nor there in terms of a job, dreamed of becoming a real estate agent, once. In her quest for the perfect house, she encountered many a hidey-hole. 

“The story I’ll tell,” she said, as she peered into her screen from a location unknown, “is of the house that changed me, made me decide to give it all up, and hightail it out of town, giving it all up for a life of digging potatoes on a countryside farm.” 

“I couldn’t have done it without the divorce,” he said, hand to throat, checking to make sure his collar button is closed. “At least I knew how to dig.” His fingers were calloused and his hair was cut short, carefully away from the collar, neck scrubbed raw like he was back in his mother’s grasp although, of course, Vietnam.  He’d never be clean again, not under his nails or behind his ears. Maybe that’s why he dug this house underground.

Days he worked in an office, not an accountant, but white collar at least, answering phones. “I’m quiet,” he said. “I pack my own lunch, and never invite a co-worker home.” His kids knew where he is living. They understood how crazed he felt when his wife went off to explore past lives with another man. He didn’t shake her or even come near because he knew his hands were skilled enough to stiffen against the larynx to stop a person’s wind. Instead, when the blood rushed to his fingers, he ran outside and started digging.

At first, it was just a way to calm down, but the callouses built up in his joints and at the edge of his palm. To his wife the hole he dug looked like a grave. How could she understand? She sat a bit, calling up whomever it was, then scampered away to her mother, and refused to return with the kids or the dog.

Al remained, waiting for the situation to change, and day by day, the hole grow exponentially, becoming at least as big as the garage, which is where he laid out a tent so he could watch for her car. Pretty soon it got colder. The empty house began to give him the spooks. When his wife finally did come back to check up on things, she took one look at the yard and agreed to sell the house and the land. They would scatter their things and buy separate places, his being a grassy plot of land on the side of a hill.

“At first I just  camped out,” he said when Vne came by for the tour, “but once I started digging I couldn’t stop.”

The kids eventually went off to college.

Having lived for years with their mother’s woo-woo, they didn’t understand why their dad had become obsessed with the ground, but they shrugged and helped him dig out the space for the windows, then came again to help him fit in a round hobbit door.

“Real cool, dad,” they said when he figured out the plumbing. It wasn’t as if he had to eat out of garbage cans. Actually, life was better. Some artsy friends wanted to form a band, and the walls were sound proof.  Girls at that point began to hang out. He had pot and drugs, plus the thrill of doing it in a cave. How to sum up the experience?

“At some point I decided to paint the visions I saw in the dark,” he said, showing me a hall in the back. “See here, this one I did on black velvet? It’s for a buddy from ’Nam, with the gates of heaven floating among purple-orange clouds. Later I added a parakeet.  See how it’s bigger than anything? That’s how strange my life has been.”

Vne was so moved that she begged to live with him in the house. Upon being refused, she returned to her job, only to discover her zest for sales had flagged. Disgusted by buyers salivating over cute little boxes, she gave up her life of greed, and decided to create a home of her own. The directions to reach the place were precise, although GPS coordinates took the place of street numbers and names. Vne included details about rocks and bushes to miss.

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