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The Roadside: A Covid Tale

November 7, 2020

My son, Elek, is the top-ranked compound junior male archer in the United States. Today he was supposed to be at the Gator Cup in Newberry, Florida, to cement that ranking for 2020 and earn his place on the junior national team. This had been his goal for six years, and he’d worked tirelessly to achieve it. This, as they say, was his moment. The tickets were purchased, the bags were packed. But last Sunday he developed a high fever, which shot up further on Monday. On Tuesday morning, Election Day, he tested positive for Covid-19. I can tell you that young people can, indeed, have heavy symptoms. Elek is still quite ill.

For seven months, we were extremely careful. Our corona-caution extended to a whole assembly-line ritual of “de-Coviding” the groceries when we brought them home. Elek is taking his classes online for his sophomore year at the University of Arizona. We wear our masks. We’ve tried to be true to the early social principles of the coronavirus era, when we were told that we were all in this together, before it became politically useful for powerful people to use the virus to tear us apart. Between March and October we traveled just once, to the USA Archery SoCal Showdown, where Elek won gold. 

Two weeks ago, we decided to make a short trip to Tucson so that Elek could visit his university and spend some time working with his coach. He wanted to get his shot, his bow, and his mindset in top shape for Gator Cup, which would be the final tournament of his junior career. Again, we were cautious throughout the trip—masks, clean hands, giving others as wide a berth as we could in aisles and on paths. All the same, the journey felt like a sort of return to the wide world, a rediscovery of a lost planet. We brought our dog; we walked her on dusty trails among exotic cacti and tangled green mesquite; red-tailed hawks soared above, an owl hooted from someplace unseen, families of quail skittered through the brush. The dog is a border-collie-beagle, silky black on her back, wooly white at the chest, 11 years old; she’s had three surgeries in 11 months; two to remove tumors, one to fix hind legs that worn themselves out. She seemed to get younger on these walks; her steps were swift, her eyes alight with nature, her nose reading the encyclopedia of a fresh new world. Her sense of health made us all feel healthy, the world cooling into bright autumn, all the year’s poison burned off at last. We have these sensations sometimes: pleasure, longing, hope, mirage.

***

Elek’s Tucson training lasts four days—he’s ready now; his bow tuned to sweet precision, his shot rhythmic and true. Time to head back to Las Vegas, stay healthy for a few more days, and head off to the big tournament. We drive the bright highway, past Picacho Peak, jutting into the sky like a cartoon cat, around the endless perimeter of Phoenix, weaving through Wickenburg. Political signs festoon even the smallest towns. We’d love to be listening to music, but instead we freight our journey with CNN.

Our dog needs to stretch her legs; we need a bite to eat. We pull off the road onto a gravel driveway where a corrugated-steel hangar houses our favorite little roadside cafe. The owner has become a friend over the years. She always greets us with kindness; she takes an interest in our lives, and we in hers. She makes wonderful pies. Elek goes in to order a sandwich. There is no better sandwich on the road from Tucson to Vegas; you take a Sharpy and a little laminated card and check the boxes of everything you want. My wife, Svetlana, treasures this place more for its grounds than for its grub. She and I stay outside; we walk the dog through a sweetly overgrown garden, up a little manmade hill with a tiny waterfall. A scarecrow is sitting on a bench. Everything speaks of care, refuge. By the side of the cafe, in the shadow of a tangled mesquite, Svetlana pours some water for the dog. I go inside and sit with Elek. He has taken a seat, his mask still on; he waits for his sandwich. It’s quiet, peaceful; we’re tired and this place promises replenishment. Inside, the owner is not wearing a mask, but the place is empty.

Several men enter the cafe, none of them in masks. They are talking loudly about constitutional originalism. One is wearing a red cap with a famous slogan. He says he had been to a big political rally. Elek ordered his sandwich to-go, but it arrives on a ceramic plate. He tries to eat quickly. Svetlana appears at the door with the dog; she waves to the owner, and the owner, kind as ever, smiles, gestures to our dog, whom she knows well from the passing years, and says, You can bring her in!

Now we are, all of us, sitting in the small cafe, a few feet from the unmasked men, listening to their latest jurisprudential theories. Svetlana orders a slice of pie to go and a cup of tea, but once again, the food, which is delightful, arrives on a ceramic plate, complete with a scoop of melting vanilla ice-cream. The owner asks my wife if she wants the pie warmed up. Caught in the spirit of the moment—we like the owner, she likes us, the food is good—Svetlana says yes. The men at the counter are talking more loudly; they know all the news, a certain sort of news. Elek has stopped eating his sandwich and put on his mask. We wait. A large family enters unmasked—a mother, an aunt perhaps, a couple of little kids, a teenage girl—and forms a chatty semicircle around the cash register. 

We have, in six years of traveling to and from Arizona, never seen the place this crowded. We’re pleased that business is going well, and we really want to leave. It is an American scene, in some ways the best of America—people of all sorts interacting with a certain generosity, the kind that makes people open with their views and the stories of their daily lives. In ordinary times, it would feel healthy—the kind of social health the Internet has robbed us of. But these are not ordinary times, and the difference between goodness and, frankly, un-Christian indifference to others is as thin as a peace of simple cloth worn over the mouth and nose.

We ask for our food to be packed up. Svetlana and Elek head outside with the dog; I wait for the semicircle around the cash register to disperse so I can pay. The owner asks me about Elek’s archery, his school, how we’re holding up through the Covid era. I ask her about business, about her family. I can’t resist engaging in conversation; this sort of engagement is a relic of my earlier self, the one that lived before the pandemic, and I don’t want to let go of it. 

We get back on the road, arrive home in the evening to catch the final innings of the World Series on TV. Our beloved Dodgers, win, for the first time in 32 years. One of the star players, Justin Turner, receives news of a positive Covid test in the eighth inning and has to leave the game. Later, he returns to the field to celebrate with his teammates. He pulls off his mask for the team photo; he lingers, exchanges hugs and high fives. We can’t really blame him, except we can. This season of American life allows no pure sensations of triumph.

A few days later, the first sign appears—Elek’s dream, in which a new species of tarantula-lizards are engaged in some kind of internecine war, attacking and devouring one another. A day after that he is sick, and a day after that the Covid diagnosis arrives. Now we are all wearing masks in the house; Elek doesn’t want to get us sick, so he even puts a shield over his mask; he looks like an astronaut, going through his days, taking his online tests, looking at his bag, still packed for Florida, sitting in the middle of the living room. 

On the Thursday after Election Day, Svetlana and I develop fevers, too, along with coughs, body aches, shortness of breath and sharp sore throats. On Friday, we test positive as well. Last night was long and difficult for all of us. I woke in the deep of night, entirely unable to breath; I caught my breath and calmed myself by thinking about, of all things, writing. We each have our own peculiar coping mechanisms. With all due respect to the flu, which can be serious business, this is not just the flu.

***

I don’t know if we were infected that day at the cafe. I hope not; the place was a small grace note in our lives, and I don’t want the memory of it to be upended by this new meaning as the source of illness. I have always thought of the cafe as a place of refuge and solace on a long, desolate road. I’d like to keep thinking of it that way. Maybe the virus came to us by some other means, at some other place. But I can’t help thinking of the strange aggression that causes our fellow men and women, our brothers and sisters who know of the fragility of both their bodies and ours, no matter how mighty we think ourselves, to forget the duty of care we all owe one another. I can’t help thinking of the simple gesture of putting on that mask, which could be the difference between sickness and health, or even life and death, or at the very least, a dream achieved or a dream denied.

– Greg Blake Miller

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