Richard Klin

Castle Keep

The world did not need another pandemic story.

He sat down to write and nothing followed. There was an abundance of themes and loci from which to draw upon. The difficulty, most emphatically, was not lack of inspiration. This abundant inspiration, though, seemed irrelevant in the face of the ongoing catastrophe.

He was sequestered in the countryside. All around him lay a calamity of epic proportions; contagion and death. New York City, which had been his home for so many years and still, by dint of geographic proximity, an easily accessible touchstone, was now unapproachable, its inhabitants walled off from the world.

Leaving the property became, almost immediately, treacherous. Brief, lightning-fast forays into town were conducted, the duration of these errands kept to a masked minimum, as if the disinclination to linger could outwit the plague, a plague that seemed unstoppable and growing in its cunning and ferocity. The air itself was potentially contaminated, leavened with menace.

So very much could be ordered online. This was a revelation. Dried fruit. Banana chips. Dog food. Masks. Pens. He learned, for the first time, of the existence of shelf milk, a sturdy product that could be stored, ingeniously,without refrigeration. 

The surfaces of packages were not immune to the pandemic’s spread, but there existed a codified process to deal with them. Packages, boxes could be simply stored outside until the appropriate interval had passed.

Delivery trucks became a steady, then a daily, presence. Sometimes two arrived at the same time. The boxes, which had been left to bake and purify in the hot sun, began to pile up. 

The possibility existed that no great literature would emerge from this pandemic because of the utter banality. On Mondays, he opened a bottle of carbonated water and, throughout the day, consumed its contents. For the rest of the week this bottle would be steadily refilled with tap water. A new bottle of carbonated water would be opened the next Monday. And then the process would begin anew.

Fabrizio wandering aimlessly through the battle of Waterloo; stumbling about, oblivious in the midst of unfolding history. Yet referencing The Charterhouse of Parma granted him an undeserved gravitas. Frontline workers, doctors, were risking their lives. As were warehouse workers and drivers, so blithely summoned to provide banana chips or pens.

The world did not need another pandemic story.

The dreams began to arrive, stunning in their intensity. Vivid dreams were a nationwide phenomenon. This was a surprisingly comforting element of solidarity. A collective dreamland, millions united in sleep. His dreams were mostly of an imploring nature, often transpiring in New York City, although his dreamscape bore almost no resemblance to the real New York, much less any recognizable city at all. In one dream, he needed to find a working phone booth to call for help. In another dream, he had to pass through an unwieldy, old- fashioned turnstile to catch a bus. The station was just this side of dilapidated and felt like something out of the 1950s. After a time, the dreams shifted and became significantly more unsettling. His father was back in Europe during the Second World War, bewailing a mother lost to the gas chambers.

He dreamed he was asleep. In this dream, a phone next to his bed rang, jolting him out of a sound sleep. An incomprehensible, threatening babble spewed forth over the line.

There was no help for this pandemic. No cure, no vaccine, no benevolent parental authority to give you a glass of ginger ale and the ironclad reassurance that all would be okay. This was not meant to sound maudlin or self-pitying. It was simply a statement of fact. There was no help.

The days of the week sped on by, melting and indistinguishable. This too had been widely observed. A solidarity of vivid dreams and passing days. The opening of a new bottle of carbonated water, signifying the arrival of Monday and a new week, seemed to happen at faster and faster intervals. The bottles, along with the boxes, piled up. In an apocalypse, empty bottles of fizzy water could be utilized to delineate the passage of time.

Summer, that exalted season, was exalted no longer. The comforting, ritualistic touchstones now did not exist. Memorial Day ushered the season in, with its endless, aimless days, the beach. The Fourth of July clocked in as it always clocked in. Labor Day signified the sad end of summer, yet was always tinged with the sense of possibility that autumn represented.

These comforting touchstones existed even if one was way past the age of endless beach days. They existed even if one was averse to patriotic displays and immune to the charms of fireworks. The aura of summer existed no matter the actual circumstances. The pandemic took all this away. This was most likely the first summer he ever detested. The sun and heat, now, did not augur promise and adventure, did not bring on that precious, sensory tapestry of memories.

The summer heat baked on as the death toll rose, as the disease pounded on. The heat felt confining. Almost, at times, rancid.

No matter how great the catastrophe, all the calamities unleashed upon the earth, the sun continued to rise in the morning and to set at night. There was that. And it provided comfort. Although even that comfort was compromised. Did whatever omniscient force that looked upon the totality of Earth, observing from some cosmic vantage point, detect something profoundly amiss? Could the sun, the moon, the omniscient eye, all of which had looked upon planet earth since the very beginning, detect this plague, the catastrophe of global warming?

It became easier and more advantageous not to venture outside at all. The incontrovertible truth was that the risk of contagion plummeted to near-zero if one never left the house. Who could offer an argument to the contrary?

So let the boxes pile up, the San Pellegrino bottles accumulate! Bring forth the delivery trucks—two at a time, if need be. All this was an acceptable price to pay in order to outwit this wily plague.

But the world does not need another pandemic story.

Based in the Hudson Valley, Richard Klin is the author of the novel Petroleum Transfer Engineer (Underground Voices). His writing has been featured on Public Radio International’s Studio 360 and has appeared in the AtlanticBrooklyn Rail, the Forward, Akashic Books’ “Thursdaze” series, Flyover Country Review, and many other publications.