Note from a Previous Denizen

I do remember that chronicles of plague aren’t easy reading. Still, healthy people shove them down despite a popping gag reflex. Afterward, these tales induce a reflux of pity, fear, discouragement with the future. But with my little plague story, just this once—since I’m a third-stager, dying from it, and I promise you it’s not a big deal—just this once let’s sidestep all the terror and despair, and see if we can’t arrive somewhere more entertaining. No pity, no fear! I’m out to win your chuckle of fellow feeling, future friend. Otherwise, what a cruel waste of my time if you should read these notes and end by nervously pitying us. I get enough of that from the returnees. They’re braving their way back from exile now, and they do so bore me. They should be ashamed: mournful, God-help-us-all pity splattering their faces, hunched up in the rocks, afraid I might sneeze upwind of them.

Nevertheless, I must try to be like you, for a moment, or you won’t listen. I must remember the beginning and admit to you that, yes, the early events of the disease are gruesome—pity fodder, definitely nothing to laugh at. I do not feel the slightest urge to laugh as I jot down, in no particular order, these pity-itching reminiscences: blisters, hemorrhage, ice bath, fever, vomiting, restraints, bleeding, terror, seizures, screaming, anguish, thirst for death, anxiety, sobbing, gasping, pus, rupture, fracture, lungs collapsing, torments, diarrhea, sores.

Well, frankly, yes, now I am laughing. As with all of us fortunate ones—those who have ridden the disease’s rapids all the way to the end—the calibrations of laughter have been revealed to me down to a very fine granularity. I would merely be clinging to vestigial notions of propriety, and only to impress you, if I priggishly muttered that this list of symptoms did not have anything amusing around its edges. Laugh a little with me. No? I understand if you don’t see the funny part yet. We didn’t either at first, but it comes. It will come to you. You’ll warm up as it gets closer.

Yes, yes, one did feel pity at first! I remember! I do! When one was healthy and one was presented with suffering, then one felt pity. I remember! It wasn’t any funnier to us than it might be to you . . . But later, one got the joke, as it were.

And once one had experienced all that suffering oneself, and one knew that the torments of the newly infected would soon be over, one didn’t bother to squeeze out a dose of simulated pity for every new whimpering bleeder. It was not that one was “hardened” or “inured” or other congealed clichés like that. It was simply that by then a certain amount of liberating perspective had been granted one. Of course, as a third-stager, one did try not to laugh right in front of the new first-stagers. But, really, they were so scared, it was difficult to take them seriously.

In the very beginning, when by definition there were only first-stagers, and the future seemed to promise only horrific suffering ad infinitum, naturally pity bubbled and fear’s blue electricity crackled everywhere across our pretty island. Pity for the victims. Pity for the victims’ terrified families. Pity for the stuttering doctors struggling to find cures or causes or at least some way to provide comfort, even as they feared they were contracting the mysteriously transmitted disease themselves. Fear of catching it. Fear of a loved one catching it. Fear that something essential was breaking down. Fear that this errant Horseman might invite his colleagues to join him. Would people shrivel into creatures ever more violent, selfish, mistrustful? Would society collapse? Would brother turn against brother? These notions now seem drolly paranoid. When, in those early weeks, the plague had no explanation and the numbers of the sick continually swelled, straining our small island hospital, and doctors and nurses were falling sick, and funeral planners were licking their pallid chops at the luscious promise of all this business (counting on some courteous professional immunity, I suppose), when anyone could be a carrier and anything could be a cause, paranoia was something of our new national trait.

The plague’s first victims were all wealthy, a crucial discovery that wasn’t made until that first well-heeled cohort traipsed—glowing—into the second stage of the disease, the stage of restored vigor and bounding optimism. One can imagine the clever doctor or secretary who, in a goggling double take of insight, suddenly noticed that all the vomit was pouring out of society’s wealthiest gorges, that all that blood was bubbling and seeping from our most glittering noses, ears, eyes, asses. But the epiphany came too late, and it was too vague anyhow, for what was it that the wealthy had been enjoying that the rest of us should now cravenly avoid? Our tendencies conspired against us, prevented us from “saving” ourselves (as I am sure has been the case in all of history’s most winning plagues). On our island, this balmy, green comma set on the blank, blue sea, our average folk had always aped the rich—habits, food, paraphernalia, building materials, clothing. So by the time the word went out from the civil authorities that all the ill were moneyed, plenty of us were already unwittingly copying the one element of rich life that had led them first, choking and collapsing, to the still-clean, still-optimistic hospital. Soon after, the island’s middle class infected itself with no more insight than the wealthy, unable to winnow out from its slavish emulations the one fatal element lovingly invited into its homes.

Months have now passed, and one has enjoyed much hilarity discoursing with friends new and old, laughingly speculating about what might have caused all this destruction. No conclusions to be reported, I am happy to say, so those hale and healthy returnees up in the hills are likely to stumble into sickness some day soon, no matter their prayers and precautions, and that suits me. No, we never knew what started it, and now, delightedly, I offer you in this note our elegant disaster mystery, unanswered until, someday, earnest viral sleuths unearth our remains and tweezer our tissue and write award-winning papers to chill future hearts with an icily academic narrative of death.

At any rate, if we had been “wiser” those months ago (by those old standards of wisdom), we would have caught ourselves by a germ’s breadth, and the disease would have devoured only our wealthy. Only our rich would have been able to afford this vacation, traveling through the plague’s three stages to their grinning finales, and that would have been that: an economic revolution courtesy of biology, the erasure of the wealthy (temporary, of course—consult your history). Their houses, avoided by the rest of us, would have stood empty, slowly yielding to nature’s sprout and molder, crumbling, moralizing. We survivors would have gone about our business with downcast eyes and fervent prayers of gratitude to our brutal Creator-Destroyer, whose hint we would certainly have caught, correcting our wicked ways for a few weeks, perhaps more. Fortunately, no: instead the viral innovation (whatever it was) was snappily absorbed by the vast majority, thus winning us the next complimentary tickets for the disease’s rough opening act.

I believe we were historically unique in that the bottom of society—the working poor and the positively indigent—were the last to fall ill in our case. The homeless would have pulled through unscathed but for their mad ambition not to be homeless. They squatted in the abandoned mansions while the rightful residents were either flailing in hospital beds or, a few yards away from those beds, wailing behind the glass of the quarantined visiting galleries, soon to cross to the other side of those too-porous windows. While the rich quaked and ailed, their palatial spreads were infested by scores of flea-bitten (but healthy!) fools who were unknowingly infecting themselves in the one place on earth they associated with infinite power and safety! I picture my destitute brethren throwing swell wing-dings in their new digs, inarticulately and drunkenly thanking the deity who had at last answered their prayers for equity. They strolled from paneled room to paneled room. Long imported cigars smoldered orange and gray in their chapped and blistered lips, their dirty fingers branded oily prints on the piano keys, the terrycloth of their plush bathrobes quickly soiled at the collars, their tongues smudged the gold fixtures when they slurped cool water directly from the taps—where did the fatal transmission occur? Dunno. While they sat cross-legged in sated-Buddha glee before the ivory-inlaid liquor cabinets, and dozed in bubbling tubs, and delved into the kitchen garden, something lively was stretching its many, many legs up and down their spinal cords, pacing out the perimeter of their brains, sampling the salty pleasures of their kidneys.

The moderately poor clung to health the very longest; some of the wealthy were already snickering their way into the third and final stage of the disease before the first working poor turned up at the hospital. Again, sweet and frothy irony: As a class, these saps had the most time to whip up a successful escape, but they lacked sufficient protective mistrust, did not question the “Calming Informationals,” which soothed via every medium, murmuring that all will be well shortly, that a cure is around the corner. The worthy poor did not doubt these increasingly rare bulletins (rare since their authors and announcers were falling ill), until their opportunity had shimmered away and they too were gripped by the shrieking headaches and bleeding guts and were stumbling down the untrafficked roads to the now vile, filthy hospital.

There they enacted the same roaring melodrama as everyone else. Still, the prideful poor bellowed and bubbled and blubbered and bled as if they were unique, as if their suffering was somehow noteworthy. (That’s suffering in a nutshell: the loss of irony, sense of proportion.) And so, like the charmless rich, the mediocre class, and the slapstick indigent before them, these good folks plodded sloppily through the early stages of the disease while the few remaining doctors and nurses wearily did their best. To be like you, I will now not laugh as I recall, for the last time, stage one, so identical regardless of one’s provenance or worldly treasures:

The blood flowed from everywhere at once, unstanchable, and the janitors’ crimson mops, dipped from time to time into buckets of warm and soapy pink, parted hourly a red sea. The bowels and the belly were fanatically, puritanically intolerant and worked in both directions with geyser-like diligence until there was nothing left to expel but sour air. The veins at the temples swelled as blue as ocean water. The eyes explored their own containers as spasms and seizures raged, requiring restraints at each limb and across the trunk. By the time the final cohort needed them, the restraints were so rotted from dried fluids, so worn-out from overuse as to be ineffective. And here, none too soon, one finds sweet cause to laugh again: on more than one occasion, these last hospital guests, like carnival apes, burst the ragged straps and in their subsequent thrashing actually buckled the beat-up hospital beds that rattled and squealed beneath their fits. The beds died just as the last patients who would ever need them needed them most! Still not funny?

I’m sorry! It must be (and this threatens to be my enduring failure) nearly impossible for you to see why this makes me laugh so hard that tears are streaming down my ticklish cheeks and splashing onto these pages. I don’t want your pity, but I believe I have earned the right to your empathy. Be brave. Take a step in our shoes.

The second stage was the reign of deception and giddiness, ambition and urgency. First, one felt better. Much better. Precisely when one felt there had been too much irreparable harm to body and spirit, when one could no longer cling with weakening fingers even one more instant to the strained, hairy roots of the twig in the cliff face, one sat up and politely asked for a cold drink. Patients felt suddenly lighter. Peckish. Amazed. A few temporarily religious types concluded that their prayers had been received and processed by an efficient celestial authority. Seeing the first recoveries, flabbergasted doctors, who only days earlier had sobbed that they were useless, now gazed, with bloodshot blinking, on their ravenous, smiling, reeking wards, and scribbled more notes in their long since illegible case histories, wrinkled, stained, clogged with crabby scrawled entries, often nothing more than punctuation marks, exasperated (!!!) or desperate (??). A few physicians smugly asserted they had done something to effect this cure (which, in the next few days, echoed up and down the hospital’s halls).

Although I experienced it more recently, one’s mind-set at that moment of apparent recovery is even more difficult to reproduce with any accuracy. If here I can only spew up greeting-card banalities, well, that is what one felt at the dawn of the second stage. (I can’t take very seriously the maudlin nonsense we all spouted, especially because, unknown to us at the time, it was a symptom, not real.) The emotional real estate now abandoned by pain was immediately occupied by a deep appreciation—or, indistinguishably, a deep desire for a deep appreciation—of every aspect of life. We were happy to be alive! We loved everyone! We were grateful to the janitors! We planned to be better, kinder, more engaged! We savored!

We did not know that now we were dying in earnest.

The second stage’s effects were entirely emotional, though still the result, it’s now clear, of the same bugs gnawing and frolicking inside us. Having sated themselves on our tissue just before their picnic could kill us, they now turned their gourmandizing to some particularly succulent bit of our—what? Brain stem? Heart? Something unnameable, some component essential to our humanity, but harder to point to on an anatomy dummy. The newly restored patient returned to his home, spouting gratitude and good intention while the disease proceeded unfelt but not unnoticed.

Quite noticeably, in fact. Most apparent, unloved jobs were ignored (not even quit), careers abandoned unmissed, offices, shops, and studios forgotten without a sigh. Instead, life’s great “value” was the only pressing concern—an auto-evangelical, turbine-whizzing effort to live up to sickbed vows. We embraced everything; everything was important, even if, now, neither you nor I can quite see why. Life was in everything! We bungee jumped from the island’s slick cliffs, springing inches clear of the snapping, slimy reptiles below. We daily painted and repainted our homes and our neighbors’ in color schemes meant to show our love of life (the color of surrounding foliage, the color of glittering glee, the color of the sparkling sea at midnight or noon). One woman on my street baked every single recipe in a particular cookbook—proceeding cover to cover, in order—and trotted door to door hand-feeding brioche and Bundt cake and baked alaska and breadsticks (just to stick to the b’s) to her equally hyperactive neighbors. Formerly gentle pursuits were pursued roughly: round-the-clock wildflower gathering, drying, labeling, and arranging—until flowers could scarcely be found in the lowland fields. Garden labyrinths sprouted in time-lapse as life-hungry citizens laid out increasingly complex mazes in front of their homes, then raided the forests for wildlife and planted their new hostages in the schematic ditches. Days spent tumbling through talentless, clumsy acrobatic routines. Weeks spent in the bowels of the library, researching nothing in particular, just the populous kingdom of all knowledge, books unshelved and devoured, even as other vibrant stage-two types were avidly organizing and reorganizing those same shelves according to ever more brilliant (and mutually exclusive) theories of library science. A man I knew stayed awake four nights running—hardly eating—in order to play his young son (also stage-two) in best-of-twenty-one matches of each and every board game the family had in its previously untouched collection. “I REALLY WANT TO I REALLY NEED I REALLY MUST LEARN TO APPRECIATE MY TIME WITH HIM!” the father bellowed joyously when I stopped by on the third day of tournament play.

For some second-stagers, a hilarious recklessness prevailed. Repentant nonathletes ran marathons in the highlands, one after the other, three or four or five at a time, until their knees would not bend or unbend, and their chafed nipples bled, and the runners vomited like early-stagers but now thanked God for the privilege.

And there were of course in the second stage many who indulged in a loosening of sexual morality, indulged long-repressed desires of all varieties, indulged their stage-two sense of moral and physical invincibility. For a while one might successfully shout to an attractive stranger on the street, “Hey! You and me. Right now. Let’s go!”

Soon, though, within three months, the second-stage gratitude and thirst for life faded—sated—into the resigned and immobilizing hilarity of the third stage. Soon the more common street scene was this telltale third-stage episode: “Hey. You and me. Right now. Let’s go,” mumbles the sexually uninterested young man, already laughing before he stumbles to the end of his come-on. The busty stranger he has propositioned bursts out laughing as well and must lie down on the ground just to catch her breath. Soon a crowd of third-stagers gathers, sits on the curb or in the road, indifferent to the lackadaisical traffic and everything else around them, and this group of strangers trades sexual come-ons, each successive, suggestive line making them laugh louder and longer, the mere statement of the advance being sufficient for the third-stager. “Come and get some of this hot stuff, sugar,” says one howling man. “I want you so bad, baby,” replies the guffawing woman slouched on the street next to him. An elderly gentleman appears and slumps down beside them, declaring, “Gimme some of your fine, hot ass, honey.” “Let’s go do it like dogs,” gasps the giggling little girl who has arrived, no one quite knows when. The entire company laughs so hard they cannot speak for several minutes. Silence reigns only when the crowd settles to supine, admiring (for hours) the passing clouds and the swaying palms rubbing the blue sky until it blanches, then bruises, then blackens from the friction. For hours, silence, but for the occasional whispering of a crude line. “All the things that mattered!” muses a housewife, leaning against the corner of an abandoned shop, her plaid-skirted legs splayed straight out in front of her.

The third and final stage has looked about the same for everyone. There is little to do but laugh. Early in the third stage, one still suspected that it should stop, this constant and constantly increasing amusement. One was a little horrified by the laughter. One strained to find something that was not laughable, that boasted enough inherent importance to withstand the weight of silence, that did not carry within itself the seeds of its own hilarious futility. No luck. Funerals: The grieving orphans and widows laughed loudest of all, and we joined them. It is probably difficult for you to accept this. I remember being like you well enough to suspect you may not approve. Perhaps we didn’t “approve” either for a while, in our resistance to abandoning childishness.

We did at first strive to find seriousness, something to cling to that would chill us, make us more like you. A company of our finest actors attempted to perform literature’s greatest tragedies, every night, and everyone—and I mean everyone, a tribute, I think, to our desire to calm ourselves, to find an unamusing haven—thronged the little theater night after night. Only the most profound thespian talents could perform for an hour without themselves bursting into effervescent mirth. They enacted mankind’s most beloved tales of sorrow, betrayal, murder, loss, treachery, despair, poverty. Shakespeare. Eye-plucking Greek tragedies. Depression-era dustbowl operas. Restrained Norwegian drawing-room crises of conscience. Sour Swedish fantasias of castrating gender domination. Russian nobility twisting in melancholic decay. Audiences bit their lips, hoped for some glimpse of purpose or meaning. But by the end of the first act, mad applause and wolf whistling filled the hall to pay homage to these brave actors’ best efforts not to howl at these broad melodramas. We never saw any second acts, and the performers were clearly relieved, night after night, just to make their bows, merry tears streaking down their wrinkled, painted cheeks, and to come join us outside the theater for a spell of lying down, watching the gray clouds.

I should explain that earlier reference to funerals. By the time the last “victims” were joining the more prompt of us in the terminal waiting area, the plague’s first fatalities were occurring. Often enough, they were essentially self-inflicted, though one can’t quite call them suicides. Someone couldn’t see the point in eating or drinking, for example. Or someone couldn’t be bothered to stand up and leave the beach as the tide and reptiles came in. Someone felt it was unbecoming to offer any defense but a raised eyebrow of amusement as the lion awoke from its zoo cave and found a snickering young man lying on the ground within easy paw’s reach. No, people did gigglingly discuss suicide, but no one could ever justify the tasteless planning and sweaty exertions. Others died from less obvious causes; the plague was simply finishing with us in no particular order, and with no suffering. Suffering had been paid months earlier in the hospital. Now it was just death, that old pal we had all begged to come, back in our first stage, and everyone went with him with a shrug and a chuckle.

Someone has to be last. The pacing was not measured and prettily proportional, so I have not been left in the poetic and easy position of burying the second-to-last, then laying myself down in an open grave and waiting my turn. No, there are bodies everywhere, far too many for me to cope with, even if tidying up was one of my strong suits. Besides, the stacks of their stiff grins are marvelously diverting company.

Equally diverting are the faces, bolder every day, of the unfortunate uninfected, recently returned from exile. They peer from behind the foothill rocks. Sometimes they toss torches on the piles of the dead, which is quite a festive sight. But they wave their guns if I shuffle toward them, which amuses me so much I have to lie down at once. There are more and more of them now. They are dreary people, stricken or smug or saintly or sorrowful or suspicious (just to stick to the s’s).

But here is what prodded me to write this record for you, future friend: Today I recognized one of them. I was lying on my back, watching the clouds, when I heard someone call my name. I propped myself a bit, turned my head slightly. It was someone I had known once. I had not seen this person since before the plague. This person had that ludicrous face—frightened, disgusted, angry at the sight of me. This person said simply, “You are the last one. Go away. Let us rebuild. For all of you.”

I was not offended by her wanting me to go. That makes a certain amount of sense. And I am not offended by their desire to forget us or burn us in piles. That, too, follows. But the assumption one sees in their faces that we are obscene, and that their pious, frightened antics are right—that offended me. And with that plea from my former love (so oddly immune, she always was), I have, in my last few days, found something worthy of action and concerted effort! (Even if I do have to laugh at this eager pioneer attitude of mine.)

I do not want whoever finds this and troubles himself to read it to misunderstand what happened here. The “survivors” will tell you it was a horror or a tragedy or a punishment. They will shake their heads and mutter about natural selection or judgment or hell. They will talk of us in hushed tones or tears. I wouldn’t be surprised if they build misguided memorials, memorializing nothing of importance just to avoid the truth. They will refer to individuals among us whom they loved and lost—and they will talk about us only as we were before the plague, as if before we were us and after we were not. They will talk of heroic doctors and sacrifices, and fund blinkered, immoral research. But they are lying. They will not acknowledge what happened to us, and what was denied them. They crept away, envious, and now they will pretend we were merely sick and then merely died.

And that is intolerable, if also quite funny. Intolerable is rather too excited a term, actually.

If you find this, will you argue our case? I suppose not. You will mourn us, too, or claim to, but really only fear our fate might be your own, just from touching these yellow pages I once handled. You will curse our bug, and bunch all the rapturously individual stages into one lumpy disease, confound its pains with its joys, and sigh bland words about horror, sorrow, and, inevitably, a “terminal madness” of some obscure variety, no more human or rational or healthy or ours than the vomit and the blood. “Poor creatures,” I can hear you clucking, even from here on the floor of the valley. “At the end, they were jabbering, deluded by the disease soon to finish them.”

And from where you sit misjudging us, can you hear me laughing so hard at you that I cannot go on writing?


Photo: George Nazmi Bebawi