Journal of the Plague Year (#26)

Berkeley, CA September 14, 2020 –

“Grandpa, do you remember the day the sun didn’t come up?”

“Couldn’t have happened.”

“But there are videos. Look!” 

“Oh, that day. Actually the sun came up. It just couldn’t bring any light through the air.”

“Why not?”

“Well it had to do with smoke and ash from fires that had been burning all around us for days.”

“And what happened when they stopped?

“It was weeks later. Then there was ash covering everything. Not just trees burned, but houses, office buildings, everything.”

“So what did people do? What did you and Grandma do?”

“We wore two masks. One for the virus that was going around. And one for the bad air. And we stayed inside for weeks.”

“Were you scared?”

“Very.”

“How did you get things like food?”

“All the food stores closed, one by one. But we had a lot saved away. Of course we missed fruits and vegetables which we love.”

“What about your apple trees in the backyard?”

“Every few days we went out for a few minutes and shook some down. Soaked them in water. Ate them, cooked them.”

“What happened to people who didn’t have houses or apartments? Or backyards?”

“There were places they could go. If they could get there.”

“And those places were full of clean air and food?”

“They were supposed to be. But they were mostly in old buildings without air filtration systems. And people could only stay in them a few hours every day. There were food donations but it was random. One day there would be a crate of crackers. The next day cases and cases of tomato soup.”

“Where were these old buildings?”

“All around. One was downtown, the old Berkeley City Hall. You know, where “City Hall Acres” is now? The eight story apartment building? That looks like all the other buildings downtown?

“Any kids?”

“Lots. People formed groups to help watch the kids. There were lots of donated toys and books and games. 

“Was there electricity?”

“Sometimes. Everybody rushed to charge up their phones.”

“On the day the sun couldn’t come out, what did people think?

“You heard the word “apocalypse” a lot.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means “the end of the world.”

“Didn’t it rain? Didn’t that help?”

“Yes, there was a huge amount of rain towards the end. It helped with the fires. But so many trees and buildings had burned that the earth was mud, and mud slides ran down hills, and streets.”

“Isn’t mud full of germs, too? What about the virus that we read about in class?”

“It was still around, and many people were sick from it. It wasn’t spreading as much and as fast because people were getting vaccinated. And there was some new medicine that helped.”

“So you could see there was an end in sight?”

“Not really. Some people refused to get vaccinated. Some people wouldn’t wear masks, said they shouldn’t be told what to do. These people denied there even was a virus, although half a million people had already died from it. And there wasn’t enough medicine for everyone. Crazy things happened in the name of “re-opening,” which was a way for businesses to continue to make money. People who ate in “safe” outdoor restaurants got sick. Professional sports were on TV until teams began to get sick and pass the sickness on to other teams.”

“Wasn’t everyone told it was dangerous? “

“The people who should be in charge in emergencies failed to get the job done, and made confused, inaccurate, and harmful statements. After a while people stopped listening to them, and instead got information from the internet. Where anybody can say anything, so that was just as bad.”

“Did kids get the medicine and vaccines first?” 

“It depended on where they lived.”

“How about school? Did kids have to go?”

“They were almost all closed. But in the clean air shelters there were laptops with on-line teachers.”

“What if someone got sick or died?”

“Hospitals and ambulances were around. But most of the people who work in them had to spend time with their own families. So they couldn’t go to work. A lot of nurses and doctors were brought in from places like Germany and Japan to help."

“Didn’t they have families, too?”

“Of course. But they really believe in what they do. So they try to do their work helping people no matter what.”

“Weren’t you bored?”

“You know me! What do I like to do in the house?”

“Read!”

“Exactly! I always have a ton of books lying around. I can never read them all, and even if I could there are many I would gladly read again. If I read them a long time ago it seems I’m reading them for the first time.”

“Do you remember anything special you read?”

“Funny you should ask. Just yesterday I was talking to Grandma about how crazy it was, when the air was all polluted and the virus was making so many people seriously sick. A lot of people were saying it was “God’s will.” And I remember it made me really angry. Our neighbors, for example, the Collins family…”

“What about the Kenyattas up the street?”

“They’re super great people, they’re wonderful friends and neighbors…”

“So did they say it was God’s will? And why do they go to church and we don’t?”

“They believe there’s such a thing as God. We don’t.”

“Not even sometimes? Not even a little?”

“Look, there are all kinds of people who believe all kinds of things. For me, if they’re happy believing what they believe then I’m OK with it. As long as nobody tries to make me believe what I don’t want to believe.”

“So what were you reading that you got reminded of?”

“It was by an Italian writer who I really like, Elena Ferrante. She wrote a big best seller a few years before that, about two girls growing up in a poor neighborhood in Italy. Her new book came out when the smoke and virus were very bad. The person telling the story in the book is a girl about your age – she’s 12 when it starts and 16 when it ends. And she has a lot of problems inside her family and in her neighborhood. At one point her father suggests she should read the Bible. Not that he’s religious, just that he thinks she might like the stories in it.”

“In school we read bible stories like other stories. You know, Native American stories, sports stories…”

“Well the Bible is very long and has lots of stories about lots of people.”

“Are they true?”

“Nobody knows. Probably a combination of truth and imagination.”

“Why did you like that book at that time?”

“The girl telling the story reads what her father suggests. And gets very angry. I’ll show you. Go get the book for me, please? It’s called “The Lying Life of Adults.” It’s near the top of the pile on my side of the bed, kind of an orange jacket….”

(Kids jump up, run upstairs together. ) 

“You’ve got a lot of pieces of paper stuck in it….”

“That’s how I know where there’s something I like.”

“Why don’t you just highlight or underline the parts you like?”

“Come on! You’ve noticed I never write in books! I hate it when I get a library book and people have marked it up. To me it means somebody thinks they’re more important than whoever else might read it after they do.”

“Anyway…did you find your place?”

“Yes, here it is. Want to hear it?”

“Sure!”

“So the girl in the book has just finished reading from the Gospels section of The Bible…”

 “I read and became agitated. We were all serving a Lord who kept us under surveillance to see what we chose, good or evil. What an absurdity, how could one accept such a servile condition? I hated the idea that there was a Father in Heaven and we children were below in the mud, in the blood. What sort of Father was God? I hated the fact that he was watching how we puppets dealt with hunger, thirst, illness, terror, cruelty, pride, even the good sentiments that, always at risk of bad faith, concealed betrayal. I hated the fact that he had been born of a virgin mother, which was impossible. Although he had the power to work miracles he used that power for games that were scarcely effective, not for anything that really improved the human condition. I hated that the son tended to mistreat his mother and didn’t have the courage to stand up to his father. I hated that the Lord God let his son die, suffering atrocious torture, and didn’t respond to his cry for help And the final resurrection? A horribly mutilated body that returned to life? Why have the experience of death if you are going to return to life for eternity? Was it really a reward, being resurrected? Or a condition of intolerable horror, to be once again under the control of a Father who gives stones, snakes, and scorpions to the son who is hungry and asks for bread?”

“You kids look confused.”

“Do we have a Bible, Grandpa? I want to read some of it for myself.”

“Hmm. Look on the top shelf in the hallway near the kitchen door.”

They race down the hall, jump up, dislodge a book. An envelope falls out.

“Daddy, we found it! Looks like there was a letter inside.”

(Takes the envelope) “Hmm. It’s from your great-grandmother. It was her Bible, I think she got it when she was born.”

“Makes it hecka old! What does the letter say?”

(Opens envelope, shows it to them.)

“We can’t read that. It’s in curvy letters, handwriting.”

“Sorry, I forgot they don’t teach that any more.”

“There’s an app that translates it to print.”

“Just let me just read it out loud, OK?”

Dear Whoever Finds This, I’m writing just before Election Day, 2020. By the time you read this many years may have passed. What is now being called “the most important election in history” is probably just a vague memory. Assuming all the afflictions – a killer virus , air dangerously unbreathable, heat, and then freezing. And violence born of  racism. Assuming these have not extinguished humans, and there is someone left to  read this…”

“We’re still here! We’re still here!”

“…I hope you will spend time with this book. You may not understand some of it, the language is old-fashioned, it dates back to the Seventeenth Century. But if you read it over and over, and ask a teacher or a minister or a friend to help, it can be clarified. I’m an old lady now, and I see that none of my children are religious. I tried to get them to go to Sunday School but they didn’t like it. I tried to get them other kinds of religious instruction – including Hebrew School. That didn’t work either. So I left The Bible lying around in obvious places. Maybe they sometimes read around in it. Maybe you will. Anyway, may the Lord make His face to shine upon you, and grant you peace…All My Love…”

“Why are you crying, Grandpa? You never cry!”

‘I never met her. She died before I was born.”

‘Everyone dies, right?”

“It’s all so fucking fragile! We can all be gone so fast and so forever! Everything I love that’s alive can be swept away. I can be gone without even getting to say good-bye!”

“Language, Grandpa!!”

“Sorry. I got carried away….”

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