S T O R I E S I N T H E T I M E O F A P A N D E M I C
“You always read about it:the plumber with twelve children
who wins the Irish Sweepstakes. From toilets to riches.
Doesn’t everyone, in some dark moment of despair, or burst of hopefulness, dream of radically changing his life? Bruce to Caitlyn Jenner, Richard Alpert to Ram Das, Malcolm Little to Malcolm X. Or Paul on the road to Damascus. One day you’re a son of a bitch persecuting Christians, and the next day you have a blinding vision that sets you on the path to sainthood. Or Gauguin–one day a stockbroker, the next a great artist. Ditch your wife and five kids, and you too can sail to Tahiti and start over again. Haven’t you ever fantasized a transformation like that? Cinder maid to silver slippered princess. Pauper to millionaire. Isn’t that the magic we’re all waiting for? We know the odds of hitting the jackpot in Powerball are 195 million to 1, but half the country buys a ticket anyway. Why? Because few of us are really happy with who we are. I know I wasn’t. That’s why I was so good at selling the lottery.
You might think lotteries hardly need advertising, that multi-million dollar jackpots sell themselves. But it’s not just riches the lottery promises; it’s the illusion that winning can turn you from a frog into a prince. Money itself may not buy happiness, but it offers the chance to become who you always wanted to be. Become your Mom’s favorite was one poster in the lottery campaign I designed. Make your Mother-in-law like you and Buy the company that fired you were others. I wasn’t my mother’s favorite, my girlfriend’s mother disliked me, and I hated my boss—feelings which many people seemed to share. The series struck a chord.
No matter how successful a campaign you create, though, people are in constant need of reinforcement for their appetites, fresh justifications for their desires. My next approach was a series of photographs with the tag line: When I Win the Lottery. One showed a man in a director’s chair, winking at the viewer, as he supervised a movie set of scantily clad women. Another pictured a Black woman in a bikini and captain’s hat at the helm of giant yacht, attended by a white waiter pouring a glass of champagne. There was also a large Chinese family standing by a Rolls Royce in front of a Tudor-style McMansion. This time the Lottery Commission was not impressed.
“These aren’t the dreams of ordinary people,” they said.
“I thought sex appeals to everyone,” I countered.
“These posters are like tawdry ads for Vegas.”
“The money you’re dangling is outrageous, far more than you can win in Vegas. The dreams should match.”
“These ads lack subtlety. They’re sexist, racist, and crass.”
We lost the account.
“I guess they didn’t appreciate my efforts to diversify,” I told Helen, the graphic designer I lived with, whose mother disapproved of our relationship.
“They know you’re mocking them, that you loathe what you’re selling. They can smell it a mile away.”
“Just because I don’t yearn for a yacht doesn’t mean I can’t relate to people who do.”
“See what I mean.”
Although the ad agency had approved the campaign, they blamed me for failing to persuade the Lottery Commission to buy it. The next week they informed me that my copywriting skills no longer matched their needs. It wasn’t the first time I’d been fired.
As Helen astutely noted, I never really believed in what I was employed to sell. My ambition, when I graduated from college, was to be a writer. Novels were passé; only movies, TV, and games mattered. I wasn’t a gamer, so I set out to write the Great American Screenplay. Aim high, imagine large. Why else make the effort?
Of course I had to pay the rent and buy the groceries while I was writing the brilliant script that would change my fortune. So I took a job in an ad agency. My first campaign was for a new brand of margarine. It’s not butter. It’s better. Smoother, healthier, always fresh. Margarine matched the way I felt about myself: we were both imposters. I never liked its taste and, as doctors complained when the ads appeared, it was debatable whether margarine was even healthier. But as successful marketers and politicians all know: Exaggeration in promoting products is no vice and moderation in pursuit of profit is no virtue. I could only make extravagant claims so long, though, before my imagination failed me. When I couldn’t find a clever enough way to sell toothpaste that would make your mouth more kissable, the agency fired me.
Happy to stop pretending, I used my unemployment benefits to write a script I thought had mass appeal; unfortunately no one else did. One successful Hollywood producer pithily explained the reason for his rejection: “Shit has its own integrity.” Broke again, and humbled by failure, I crawled back to the world of false promises. I had a few successes, particularly my first Lotto campaign, then the disaster that got me canned again. I vowed this time would be the last.
Two months later Helen moved out too. I couldn’t blame her. I found it hard to live with myself as well. Still, I had no desire to look for another job. Since my unemployment benefits and savings were enough to sustain me for a year, I decided to take one more shot at Hollywood’s wheel of fortune. This time I set my sights on television and wrote a pilot for a sci-fi series set in a future where you could design your own babies, genetically engineer not just the sex or color of their eyes, but also their intelligence, musical talent, athletic prowess, whatever traits you wanted to implant. In the world that I imagined, you could create the ideal person you wished to be. Unmarried, and childless, I could still dream.
The afternoon I finished the second draft of my script, I felt a rush of elation. The screenplay was clearly the best thing I’d written. I walked to the 7- Eleven a few blocks from my apartment to buy a six-pack of Samuel Adams to celebrate. As I paid for the beer, I noticed the lottery tickets at the counter. I’d probably bought less than half a dozen in my life, but I had change from the beer, and I was feeling uncharacteristically hopeful. So why the hell not take a chance? Bet on the sweepstakes as well as my screenplay.
If you recognize my name, you know what happened next: the $42 million jackpot. Dumb luck, of course. The odds of winning were astronomical. I think 80 million other people played the Lotto that week. But I’ll say this about the lottery; unlike Hollywood, it doesn’t penalize you for talent, taste, or intelligence.
It’s hard to describe the shock of discovering that overnight you’ve become a multimillionaire. My first reaction was disbelief. I kept reading the numbers on my ticket and matching them to the numbers in the paper. Could this really be true? The shock was followed by exhilaration. I could now fulfill every fantasy I’d envisioned in my ad campaigns. I wanted to run out into the street in my underwear and shout the news loud enough for even my dead parents to hear. I didn’t of course. I called a few friends in L.A. and Helen, who hung up, thinking I was pranking her. Later that morning, I walked to the 7-Eleven to tell them they’d sold the winning ticket and bought enough beer and wine to celebrate with all the neighbors on my street.
When the press discovered that I’d written ads for the lottery, there was some temporary unpleasantness. However, a quick investigation cleared the way to award me the money: I no longer had any connection to the Lottery Commission and my winning numbers had been machine generated. I was as deserving as anyone who bought a ticket.
In the next few days, reports of my extraordinary good fortune went viral. My younger brother, my mother’s favorite, whom I hadn’t spoken to in over a year, called from Houston, where he worked at a sketchy right-wing radio station that promoted one conspiracy theory after another. My winning the lottery perfectly fit his skewed view of reality. It could only be part of a nefarious plot to swindle the masses and enrich and empower purveyors of false truth like me. Soon I would answer for my sins. “Nothing can stop what is coming,” he warned. He wasn’t the only one to respond with vitriol. My prior association with the lottery confirmed for the aggrieved that the sweepstakes was corrupt. “The system’s rigged, you fucking crook. How else could you win? I know where you live, you scumbag mother fucker.”
The hate mail was only exceeded by the tearful pleas for hoped-for benevolence. “If God sees fit to bestow such wealth upon you, surely you must merit it in His eyes. I can only assume therefore that you are a kind and generous man who will look favorably upon my need for….” Fill in the blanks: a motorized wheelchair, a new car, a prosthetic leg, a new house, larger breasts “which you can be the first to caress.” The emails and letters were litanies of woe, tragic tales of poverty, disability and despair, families ruined by floods and fire and illness, or torn apart by drugs or prison or death in Iraq and Afghanistan. They made me wish for a revelation like Paul’s that would convince me there was redemption for all this suffering. Certainly, my millions couldn’t provide it, even if I’d given it all away.
In the beginning I read everything, the death threats and the appeals for money; the daily marriage proposals (accompanied by seductive selfies) from Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan; the urgent invitations to meet from cousins three or four times removed (“I’m the grandson of your mother’s first cousin Emily”); the Facebook friend requests from people I’d never met or long forgotten (“Remember me, I was in Miss Godwin’s kindergarten class with you”). When I didn’t respond, the resourceful found my phone number and dialed. I changed my number, changed my email, canceled my Twitter account, and stopped looking at Facebook. The desperate and insistent were undeterred. They sent letters by Fedex, UPS, the postal service; they even showed up at the door. Whether appeals for aid or diatribes of hate, envy and resentment ran through all the letters and emails I received. Finally, I stopped opening them. They saddened and frightened me too much.
I abandoned my apartment, rented an over-priced new one in a high rise building overlooking the ocean in Santa Monica, and left no forwarding address, hoping that a new residence, a beard and dark sun glasses might keep me anonymous for awhile. I didn’t buy a yacht or a Rolls; I splurged on a canary yellow Ferrari F430 Spider instead. The sports car was definitely an indulgence, but I needed a distraction, or maybe consolation for feeling both reviled and guilty for my good fortune.
A few nights later, I drove the Ferrari to pick up Helen for dinner. It was the first time we’d seen each other since I’d become a multi-millionaire. No longer damaged goods, I was suddenly worth a reappraisal in both Helen and her mother’s eyes. She surveyed the convertible, the beard, the Gucci Aviator sunglasses. “Wow. A new man. Do you have a tattoo to match?”
“I’ll show you mine, if you show me yours,” I teased, knowing that, under her skirt, daffodils were discreetly inked on her right hip.
“We’ll have to see about that,” she said.
At Lucques the conversation flowed easily over bluefish wrapped in pancetta and two bottles of 2013 Domaine De Chevalier Blanc. After all, we’d lived together for nearly two years, and even in bad times, retained some affection for each other.
“So what are you going to do with all that money?” she asked the multi-million dollar question.
“I’m still thinking about it. Any suggestions?”
“A house in Bel Air,” she instantly replied.
“Is that really where you want to live?”
“I wouldn’t mind.”
I downed the last of the too-expensive wine and called for the check. Maybe I was angry with her, or dispirited by her Bel Air dreams, or just too tipsy, but driving back to my apartment, I failed to curb my speed. When the SUV in front of me braked suddenly at a yellow light, I rear-ended it. The collision wasn’t hard enough to injure anyone; the damage was to the cars.
The woman driving the Subaru surveyed her mangled bumper with fury as we exchanged insurance information. She glowered at the crumpled apron of my Ferrari as if it deserved even worse. “You’ll be hearing from my lawyer,” she said. Helen’s look mirrored hers when I returned to the car. “Please, drive me home,” she said. “I thought money might change you, but you’re as self destructive as you were before.”
I interpreted the accident differently, saw it as a sign I’d bought the wrong car. Wrecking it was unconscious recognition that I didn’t deserve a Ferrari. I was a poseur, an imposter donning a suit that didn’t fit, driving a racecar I couldn’t control. I sold it back to the dealer, at a great loss, deserved punishment for my grandiosity.
Maybe the lottery is a bipolar experience for every winner, and depression follows mania as inevitably as night follows day. My unexpected fortune was both a gift and a burden. You couldn’t just let it sit in a bank–okay several banks– collecting interest. I still had to figure out what to do with all that money. The only way Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, could think to spend his Amazon billions was to build a space ship to travel to another planet and escape all his detractors on this one. I didn’t have that much money, but I did have a futuristic vision of my own. I returned to pursuing it.
I found an agent who just loved my screenplay and immediately sent it to several highly regarded producers. One immediately saw its potential and set up meetings with cable networks and streaming services. So we made the rounds. The suits, although they rarely wore them, were all eager to talk. However, they were more eager to discuss the lottery than the pilot I’d written. The shameless letters I received from prospective brides interested them far more than the characters I’d created. What if I traveled to Ukraine or Kazakhstan to discover if the women in the photos were real? What if I actually fell in love and married one of them? Now that was a fabulous premise for a reality series.
We had half a dozen meetings like that. Besides the marriage proposals, the hate mail and death threats also intrigued the execs. They’d received similar mail themselves. How seriously did I take the threats? What did I do to protect myself? Finally, we’d get around to my script, which they all agreed was a great read, although they had various reservations. The pilot was either too expensive to produce or too similar to a project already in development or too cerebral for our audience. In the end no one wanted to put up the money to make it. But you should shoot it, they encouraged. Finance it yourself. You have the resources. Prove your concept; bring it to life on the screen.
Most producers in Hollywood warn you never to mortgage your house or put up your own money to make a film. But the producer who’d shopped my screenplay urged me to take the plunge. “Why not spend your money on something you believe in? You do believe in yourself, don’t you?” Put that way, it was difficult to say no. I’d always wanted to direct anyway, and since I was paying for it, why not helm the project too? Aim high, imagine large. Only now the actresses would be wearing space suits instead of bikinis.
For a hefty salary, I hired the producer to guide me through the process, and he, in turn, hired a professional crew to make up for my inexperience. He was never able to cast the A-list actors we first discussed, but he had no problem finding replacements. Everyone was eager to work for a man blessed by luck; they hoped it would rub off on them and turn them into stars. Unfortunately, I quickly discovered that it’s easier to bed actresses than direct their screen performances. Maybe I was blinded by lust, but I couldn’t tell whether they were faking it in bed or on the set. Or both.
Although I was smart enough to follow the lead of my crew, in the end, the final decisions are the director’s. Even when I wasn’t sure if what I was capturing was true or false, credible or laughable, I was the one who had to determine if the take was good enough to move on to the next setup. Much of the time I couldn’t tell. Sometimes I stalled for time and asked the actors to repeat the shot; other times, at a loss how to improve the scene, I just moved on and hoped we could fix it in the edit room. Each day was more excruciating than the last. I woke with the taste of dread and nausea and returned home at night with my temples throbbing, too drained to do anything but pour myself some scotch and crash. It was a relief when the shooting ended.
Seeing the film the editor finally stitched together, I felt as heartsick as I did when I smashed up the Ferrari. My money had purchased an even more expensive suit that didn’t fit. I was no Orson Welles, no Spielberg, no wunderkind. No Gauguin either. The reception to the film confirmed my own reaction. It was stillborn, lifeless. The Syfy channel bought it for a little more than the auto dealer paid for my ruined Ferrari and aired it late at night when few people were watching. Humiliated by my failure, I remembered the famous adage of Saint Teresa, who spurned wealth to become a nun: “There are more tears shed over answered prayers than over unanswered prayers.”
Instead of enabling me to realize my dreams, my wealth had exposed my limitations. Miserable as I was, I still had no desire to follow Saint Teresa and give my millions away. To quote another revered woman, not a saint: “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. And, believe me, rich is better,” Mae West declared. I agreed. Yet if you can’t become the person you dreamed, who are you? I looked at myself in the mirror. Maybe I was as bad at reading faces as I was judging performances, but I couldn’t tell if the haggard face staring back at me was a perpetual imposter or something more I couldn’t see. To discover that, I decided to retreat, to reconsider, so I bought a small, split-level house at the end of a dirt road, high in the hills of Topanga Canyon. My neighbors were coyotes and rattlesnakes, lizards and gophers, scorned creatures whom I found fitting company. I knew my distress paled in comparison to the pain suffered by the hundreds of people who’d entreated me for help, but I couldn’t shake my gloom.
Alone and isolated, I had time to read books I’d had no time to explore before. I started with memoirs of self-transformation, Caitlyn Jenner’s The Secrets of My Life and Ram Das’s Be Here Now. I moved on to The Moon and Sixpence, Maugham’s novel about Gauguin, and then to books about the life of Paul. It was encouraging to see that none of their transformations had occurred overnight. Like Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner, they’d all struggled with the terrifying question, “What the hell am I going to do with my life?” Paul was tormented by a constant feeling that he wasn’t accomplishing what he wanted and that he fell agonizingly short of perfection. Nietzsche called him a morbid crank, repellent both to himself and others. Though I heard no voice of God calling to me, I understood Paul’s feelings of inadequacy.
Most days I slept late, read, hiked the ridge trails, or simply sat on my deck smoking pot and watching the lizards sunning themselves on the rocks and the hawks circling in the sky. Perhaps I was clinically depressed, but I had no desire to engage with other people. I only turned on the news occasionally to check what was happening in the world outside my hideaway. The outbreak of Covid-19 in China and its devastating spread through Europe confirmed my decision to remain on my mountaintop. Who knew how soon the contagion would reach the U.S.?
One afternoon, while sitting on my deck, mildly stoned, I heard a car slowly working its way up the incline. Through the haze of pot and dust, I finally glimpsed the intruder, a FedEx van, which stopped at the parking area, about fifty yards below the house. The driver emerged from the van and started up the gravel path. I rose to meet him, the first person I’d seen in weeks.
“This is a helluva place to get to,” he said, handing me a standard FedEx envelope.
“But you found me anyway.” I opened the envelope with trepidation, worrying who’d managed to track me down. Inside was a neatly handwritten letter from a woman I’d never met.
“I hope this reaches you. I couldn’t find your phone number or email and I don’t know if this is even the correct address. I write because I worry your brother is very sick and has no one to take care of him. He doesn’t know I’m writing you and would be very angry if he did. He says it’s just a bad case of the flu. I worry it could be this new virus. He speaks of you often, his rich and lucky brother. Can you bring that luck to Houston to help him? Please come, come as soon as you can. I fear for him.”
My estranged brother and I hadn’t spoken since he telephoned about the lottery. Harry was born with a congenitally dislocated hip that no one detected until he was two and started to walk with a limp. The hip required major surgery, which the surgeon botched and crippled Harry. My mother blamed herself, and her doctor, for not noticing the deformity earlier. To absolve her guilt, she focused her love and attention on my frail, hobbled brother. Since I was three years older and had all my limbs intact, I was entrusted to look after him every place we went–school, playground, social gatherings–a responsibility I resented and often shirked, especially when I was in high school. When he was bullied or ridiculed I often failed to protect him. Despite my mother’s love, he saw himself as an outcast, irremediably damaged, unfairly treated by God and doctors and me. He grew up waiting for the Day of Reckoning, the Great Awakening, when justice would be restored, the mighty would be brought low, and the lowly become king.
“Nothing can stop what is coming,” my brother had predicted when he castigated me for winning the lottery. Somehow I doubted that Covid-19 was what he’d imagined. I knew he wouldn’t be happy to see me, yet how could I not go?
I didn’t know much about the coronavirus—it was just beginning to reach America—but on the way to the airport I bought some packs of medical masks in case my brother was contagious, and flew to Houston. Harry lived in a village of two-story, motel-style apartments in the Northwest part of the city. I parked my rental car, found my brother’s apartment and knocked. Harry opened the door in an undershirt and boxer shorts, and a loosely tied, garishly colored cotton bathrobe. He hadn’t shaved in days and there were dark patches under his hollowed eyes. He stared at me as if I were an alien from another planet or a character from some comic book. “The Lone Ranger and Green Hornet wore masks over their eyes,” he said. “Isn’t yours in the wrong place?”
“Your neighbor wrote to tell me you were sick.”
“I told her it was just the flu,” he said, still clinging to the half-opened door as if he needed it for ballast. “This virus shit is just a hoax, another plot by Gates and his fellow globalists to take away our freedoms.”
“Are you going to let me in? Or are you just going to stand there haranguing me?”
Begrudgingly, he opened the door. I followed him as he limped into his cluttered apartment and sank onto the rumpled couch. Newspapers and magazines and unopened mail were piled on the chairs and coffee table. I cleared a space and sat. “Have you spoken to your doctor?” I asked.
“You know I hate doctors. You know what they did to me.” He started to cough, a harsh, unnerving rattle that reddened his face. I quickly went into the kitchen and poured a glass of water. The counters and sink were filled with dirty dishes. The odor of stale grease permeated the room.
“Maybe it’s more than just the flu. Maybe you should get tested,” I suggested when I returned with the water.
“Are you a doctor now? Did you use your lottery money to buy yourself a medical degree?”
“I don’t know any more than you. That’s why it would be a good idea to find out.”
“I’m taking Tylenol, Vitamin C, drinking lots of liquids. I’m getting better. I’m not going to any damned hospital.” Harry rose unsteadily. “Go back to California. I don’t need your help. I never did.” He stumbled, grabbed for the nearest armchair for support but missed, and face planted on the dirty carpet.
He tried to rise and sank to the floor again. I immediately dialed 911. By then, he’d managed to turn over on his back; his face was bloody and his breathing labored. I insisted he lie there until the paramedics arrived. He glared at me as they carried him on a stretcher to the ambulance as if I’d betrayed him once again. I followed him to the hospital in my rental car, and watched them rush him into the E.R. in his hideous bathrobe. That left me to fill out the paperwork. I was ashamed at how little I could answer on the forms; I had no idea of my brother’s current health condition, or medical insurance, or whether he was even employed now or where.
After returning the forms with their many blanks, I joined the other anxious strangers in the waiting room. The crowded room was like a United Nations of the sick and ailing, people of all races, speaking in different languages, coughing in different registers, united by a common fear and helplessness. It reminded me of all the desperate letters I’d received and failed to answer. Now here I was among the desperate.
It took four hours before a doctor called me into the E.R. “We won’t get the test results back for a few days, but your brother probably has Covid,” a man in green scrubs, about my age, said from behind a mask and helmet-like plastic shield. “His chest X-ray shows no pneumonia and his oxygen level is still high, so I’m sending him home.” He told me to buy an oximeter at a drug store to monitor his blood oxygen level and pulse rate and to watch them closely. “This virus is unpredictable. He could crash at any time.”
“Look, we’re just learning about this beast. We only have so many beds and we need them for people who’re in worse shape than your brother. He doesn’t want to be here anyway. He thinks he just has a bad case of the flu.”
“Well, he’s no doctor.”
“I wish I had better answers,” he said. Then he was gone.
Harry was triumphant about his release. Even the treacherous doctors had vindicated his self-diagnosis. He berated me all the way back to his apartment as he wiped perspiration from his feverish forehead. What right had I to call the paramedics? I’d freaked out, panicked over an unfortunate tumble, and rushed him to the hospital in his bathrobe and underwear. For what? A bad case of the flu. What made me think I knew what was best for him? Why my sudden interest in his life anyway? I’d never given a damn before.
I half-listened to his grievances. Even if the test confirmed he had Covid, I knew he wouldn’t accept the diagnosis. My goal wasn’t to change my brother’s beliefs, just to insure he survived. He wasn’t about to don a mask, so whatever precautions I took were up to me. The nurse at the hospital told me Covid-19 was most contagious two to three days before symptoms began, less after the illness hit; maybe I hadn’t been infected yet. En route to the apartment, I stopped at a CVS, bought an oximeter, a thermometer, rubber gloves, bottles of sanitizer and cleaning supplies.
“What’s all this for?” Harry asked.
“If I’m going to stay with you, I’m going to make sure your place is at least clean.”
“What’s the matter?” he scoffed. “No rooms at the Ritz?”
When we reached his apartment, he wobbled into his bedroom and, exhausted, careened onto his bed. I spent the rest of the day washing the dirty dishes, vacuuming the apartment, and disinfecting the kitchen, bathroom, every surface where the virus might be lurking.
Two days later, the hospital called while Harry was sleeping to report that he’d tested positive for the virus. I knew telling him would only provoke another argument. It was difficult enough to get him to use the oximeter to test his oxygen level and heart rate. The hospital had warned that it could take two to three weeks for the virus to run its course, that Harry could appear worse one day, improve the next.
He only grew weaker. He lost his appetite, could barely keep down the soup or eggs I cooked for him. His phlegmy cough grew harsher, his breathing shallower. He wore the same pajama bottoms for days because it was too hard to put on a new pair. Most of the time he huddled under the blankets in his “Make America Great” hoodie to ward off the chills from his fever. I waited for his fever to spike too high or his oxygen level to plummet too low to justify returning to the E.R. Every day I called the hospital, I spoke to a different doctor. They prescribed antibiotics, which I hurried to CVS to get, and which Harry took along with his Tylenol and Vitamin C. Despite his rattling cough and soaking sweats, he insisted that this would pass. I anxiously monitored his oximeter levels, worried that I might miscalculate, wait too long to take him back to the hospital.
Nights were the worst. I slept fitfully on the living room couch, listening to my brother toss and turn and cough in his bed. As children we shared a bedroom, and I remembered him moaning in his sleep after his failed surgery. Our mother would rush into the bedroom to comfort him, while I covered my ears with my pillow to shut out his groans and sobs.
The fourth night after our return from the E.R., I head a loud crash in his bedroom. I turned on the light to find him sprawled on the floor. He waved me off, but was too weak to stand. I struggled to lift him and help him to the bathroom, and then led him back to bed. The tissues I saw beside his pillow were spotted with blood.
“I think tomorrow we should go back to the hospital for another X-ray,” I said.
He leaned back against the headboard and pulled the blankets up around his shoulders, shivering. “How come you got all the good luck? Health. The winning lottery ticket. Why you instead of me?”
“I know it isn’t fair.”
“No, it’s cruel.”
I took a deep breath. “You mean I’ve been.”
He didn’t answer.
“When this is over, when you get on your feet again, I’ll be happy to share my winnings with you.” It was all I could think to offer. He began to laugh, which turned into a fit of coughing. When he stopped, he wiped blood from his lips. “I don’t want to be you,” he said.
“But if you could be anything you wanted, what would it be?”
“I’d like to walk right. But it’s too late for that now.” He slid down into the bed and pulled the covers over his head.
The next morning, at the first light of dawn, I helped him dress—a clean set of underwear, loose-fitting pants and a T-shirt he selected that said “Deplorable Lives Matter”—and drove him to the hospital. This time he was too exhausted, too depleted from his struggle with the virus to protest. Because of the virus’s contagion, the hospital was now closed to everyone except patients. I had to leave Harry at the door to the emergency room. “Maybe this is the beginning of the Apocalypse,” he said as a masked attendant put him in a wheel chair to take him inside. “If it is, you know your lottery winnings won’t save you.”
“I didn’t expect they would,” I said.
For the first time since I’d arrived in Houston, he smiled, as if the admission of my vulnerability, my precarity on this planet, confirmed a bond between us. I watched his wheelchair disappear into the hospital, wondering if we would ever see each other again.
There was nothing I could do now but wait. I found a restaurant a few blocks from the hospital and ordered a breakfast I could hardly eat. Suspended between hope and fear, I couldn’t think. I just sat there, drinking one cup of coffee after another until a doctor finally called. New X-rays revealed diffuse pneumonia in Harry’s lungs and they’d immediately placed him in intensive care. I’d brought him to the hospital just in time, the doctor said.
I walked slowly back to the hospital parking lot where I’d left my car.
Standing by the entrance to the hospital was a Black family: a middle-aged woman leaning heavily against a taller man, and a pigtailed girl around seven, clinging to her mother. Tears streamed down both the woman and her daughter’s cheeks as the man murmured words I couldn’t hear. I watched them a moment, unabashedly, feeling a rush of compassion for them, for Harry, for all the sick and ailing in the hospital. The man looked up and saw me staring, and I nodded in sympathy for whatever loss they were grieving. He returned my gaze as if he understood. Then a valet in a homemade mask pulled up with their car and the man helped his wife and daughter into it.
Waiting for my car among the masked attendants, I suddenly realized I was no longer wearing my own mask. Not just the mask in my pocket, but the many others I’d worn for so long. The arrogant copywriter, the failed filmmaker, the guilty brother. The pandemic had erased all those past identities, including the extravagantly lucky lottery winner. All obscured what I shared with Harry, and everyone else who struggled to find purpose and meaning in our lives. We all belonged to the same fellowship. The thought lifted me for a moment. I felt lighter than I’d been in a long time, curiously liberated and alive. I put my face mask on again to affirm my connection to everyone I’d scorned before.
Also by Mark Jonathan Harris The Reluctant King
headliner image credit: vov.vn
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