I COME from people who anticipate the worst so this quarantine is right up my alley. My mother, every Sunday morning as we left for church, imagined she had left the iron on and that our house would go up in flames. I always assumed I would die young until I got too old to die young but I still have a lingering fear of putting my tongue on a clothespole in January and being frozen to it and firemen will come and yank me loose and I’ll speak with a lisp for years thereafter. I expect to step off a curb on Columbus Avenue and be run down by a deliveryman on a bike and die with a carton of shrimp in garlic sauce on my chest.
I try, for the sake of my wife and daughter, to keep up a cheerful front but I am my mother’s son. I share her Scots heritage. Scotland is where golf was invented, a game that shows us the worst aspect of ourselves. Bluegrass comes from Scots, songs like “Let Your Teardrops Kiss The Flowers On My Grave” and “The Fatal Wedding” (“The bride, she died at the altar, The bridegroom died next day. The parson dropped dead in the churchyard as he was about to pray.”) Someone told me once, “If one of them isn’t dead by the third verse, it ain’t bluegrass.”
I’ve been severely criticized the past few weeks for writing about how happy I feel at a time when there is death all around us in New York City and doctors and nurses are wracked with anxiety and exhaustion, but that’s exactly the point: grief belongs to those who are in real trouble and though I expect to fall into despair, it hasn’t happened yet and so the privilege of anguish is not mine to enjoy. I used to be a tortured artist who wrote anguished surrealistic poetry and, by George, I could do it again, but I haven’t been so moved.
These days, I skip the front page of the New York Times and jump to the obituaries. Here is Al Kaline, the Detroit Tigers star, and songwriter John Prine and also Vince Lionti, 60, violist in the Met Opera orchestra for thirty years and conductor of the Westchester Youth Symphony who once said his greatest musical experience was conducting the symphony, 101 players, at a school for the deaf and the deaf kids sat on the stage amid the orchestra and laughed out loud as they felt Beethovenly vibrations. I grieve for the obituarized. And I am happy not to be there myself.
And then, on Sunday, on a Zoom chat with family, my wife, Jenny, said out loud, “I feel no need to leave the apartment.” This was such a loving thing, on the order of “to love and cherish until death us do part.” She’s often told me that she loves me and needs me but never after a month of seclusion with me. To say, “I feel no need to leave the apartment” is to say, “I feel no urge to strangle you in your sleep and grab a cab and catch a flight to Lisbon.” That’s what a Scot who loves bluegrass would expect and it isn’t so. So I’m happy.
She also said, last night, “I miss the world,” which I can understand. I don’t. I try to miss it but it hasn’t happened yet. The monastic life is a peaceful life, and I’m a writer and I’ve been trying to self-isolate since I was in my mid-twenties. I feel desperate when I imagine not having a major league baseball season but that hasn’t been announced yet. Meanwhile, I work on my novel, The Fatal Quarantine, in which a young couple cooped up in a tiny co-op apartment get on each other’s nerves over time because he is of a pleasant disposition and she is about to go berserk and she opens up his computer while he sleeps and finds the novel he’s writing in which the hero is putting strychnine in his wife’s stir-fry so he can marry the neighbor lady whose bedroom faces their kitchen and one night, when he gets up to pee, she leads him half-asleep to the window and shoves him out. They live on the twelfth floor. A year from now, this is going to be No. 1 on the fiction list and she and I are going to get us a bigger apartment on the eighteenth. You just wait and see.