Diary of a New York City Quarantine is a work of fiction. Names, Characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. Reproductions of this work in any medium of any sort is prohibited.
“Diary of a New York City Quarantine” ©2020 Tony J. Caridi
All Rights Reserved.
New York City, New York
Wednesday, March 11, 2020
My mother—rest her soul—would quote Thoreau, who said, “The devil finds work for idle hands.” So, while unable to do much else, and to keep myself and my hands occupied, I’ve started this journal.
My name is Thomas Langford. I’m fifty-four years old. I live in Columbus, Ohio, with my wife, Donna, and our sixteen—going on twenty-six—year-old daughter, Cherish. Donna and I were born and raised in Sciotoville, about ninety miles south of Columbus, as the crow flies, and it was Donna’s job as an insurance adjuster that moved us there. I’m a writer; so, I’m able to do my job from just about anywhere.
I checked into my hotel room here in New York City, at the Empire Suites, a little over two weeks ago. It has been one week today since the fourteen-day quarantine began, due to the pandemic that’s spreading across the globe and hitting the States now, and more specifically, landing right here in New York City. I did a little research on the Internet today; I wanted to know more about this virus that officials are calling, COVID-19. I’m glad I did! I learned quite a bit about this nasty little bug, known as a novel coronavirus, starting with how they named it.
In COVID-19, the C-O-V stands for Coronavirus, and the I-D-19 means that it was identified in 2019; not too complicated I suppose. The World Health Organization (WHO) initially posted a tweet saying that cases of pneumonia caused by a novel virus are spreading throughout Wuhan, China. The tweet went on to say that this new virus “does not transmit readily between people.” I’m sure they’re singing a different tune now because that tweet has since been deleted. Obliterated from existence, CANCELED.
And this far off place, Wuhan, it’s no backwater; in fact, the ninth largest city in China. Supposedly, this virus has come from infected animals sold in a particular wet market there. Wet markets are very popular in China. Vendors there sell anything other than dry goods, such as produce, meat, fish, chicken, pork, and exotic animals like the pangolin, and bats, even bear bile. Some of the world’s leading public health officials have referred to wet markets as “disease incubators.” They’re rife with unsanitary conditions, ideal for spreading disease. It’s no surprise than that these viruses use animals, like those sold at wet markets, as vessels for their mutation. Once the virus has mutated, the new strain leaves the animal to move into a new host for replicating and spreading. It does so typically through the animal’s blood, urine, and feces. People who work or shop at these wet markets can then come into contact with or even consume the viral-infected meat, unwittingly infecting themselves. This new virus, COVID-19, a first cousin to the SARS virus, has now begun to spread among human beings, and it’s spreading faster than a wildfire with a tailwind.
When a virus makes the leap from animals to humans, like this one has, it becomes a zoonotic disease. Both the SARS virus in 2002 and the MERS virus in 2012 are zoonotic coronaviruses, whose outbreaks began in much the same way. Before the Chinese Communist Party clamped down on releasing details regarding COVID-19, an official at a certain virology lab in Wuhan posted the novel coronavirus’s genetic sequence data to virological.org. I guess with hopes that other scientists in the world community might assist in unraveling the mystery to create a vaccine.
I didn’t even know that viruses have DNA. But that’s how virologists here in the United States discovered precisely where this mess originated. Nowadays, these virologists use a virus’s unique DNA to pinpoint where it started, right down to a region or city, or more specifically, and sometimes even the laboratory that may or may not have spawn the bug.
Rumor has it that a certain lab, the Wuhan Institute of Virology which conducts research on viruses such as COVID-19 is actually located very close to the wet market where humans first became infected. And, that this lab had been experimenting with what virologists call, “gain of function” research. Gain of function works by weaponizing or making pathogens deadlier and more contagious. But finding actual proof of this is highly unlikely and tantamount to finding the smoking gun.
Friday, March 13, 2020
Well, it’s just my luck that some people here in my hotel have become infected with COVID-19. They started showing the symptoms: dry cough, shortness of breath, high fever. Four guests and two housekeepers tested positive for the dreaded virus. The management kept that a secret for all of ten minutes before the entire hotel knew about it and guests began checking out. Some actually got out before the quarantine began. I wish I had. The CDC website is reporting that SARS-CoV-2 or COVID-19 is a particularly dangerous variant because of its R0 (R naught factor) which is an estimate of how many healthy people one contagious person will infect. Where someone infected with the regular, old flu-bug potentially infects one other person (R0=1), someone with COVID-19 infects three (R0=3). It takes seven days from the time you’re infected with COVID-19 until you become symptomatic. Symptoms can last for fourteen days unless complications set in, such as pneumonia. In an abundance of caution, the city’s health department has closed the hotel and quarantined all guests and employees for the next fourteen days. We’re allowed to walk around the hotel, go down to the lobby, but that’s about it. The bar, swimming pool, fitness room, and even the business center are all closed until further notice, per the quarantine.
The reason that I’m here in the city is to meet with my editor and publisher about a book I’ve written, which is scheduled for release later this year. However, this virus has hit New York City hard, which means all my meetings have been canceled. Right now, I just want to get out of here and go home. I tried leaving this morning. The manager stopped me. He said if I left the hotel he would call the police, and instead of serving out my quarantine in a five-star-hotel, I’d be doing it in the city jail. What’s the use? Even if I could leave the hotel now, I wouldn’t be able to fly home to Columbus. They aren’t allowing any planes from “hot zones,” like New York City, to land at John Glenn International.
I suppose timing is everything. Last week, an old high school buddy of mine from back home, Jerry Ellison, was here, too, on business, but he got out of the city before the lockdown. Jerry owns a successful e-commerce, home décor, and accessories business. He’s somewhat of a celebrity back home. Back in 2015, Jerry received the Black Entrepreneur of The Year Award, and he and his wife Lisa even had lunch at the White House with the Obamas. Jerry’s top-notch designers and celebrity clients are here in Manhattan, so on his way back from China, where he imports most of his products, he stopped off here to glad-hand a few of his “special clients” as Jerry says, that require “special attention.” I sure am glad he texted me to let me know he was in town. Just before he took off for Columbus, Jerry and I got together for pizza and a couple beers at Carmine’s in Times Square. It sure was good to see him again.
We talked on the phone, a day or so after he arrived back home. I asked him how he was able to pull it off, with the whole country shutting down, “how the hell did you get home, and before me? The ever resourceful businessman, Jerry told me that he’d rented a car from the Avis near LaGuardia, which had canceled all flights, then drove about forty minutes north to White Plains. There he chartered a plane, one of those prop-jobs, from an air-taxi service at the Westchester County Airport. Since the pilot wasn’t allowed to land at Columbus, he landed at Madison County, a smaller airport just outside of Columbus, where Lisa picked him up.
Ah, that Jerry Ellison, what a great guy! I envy the man. A successful entrepreneur, with a beautiful young wife, big house; he’s always been one lucky son of a gun.
Saturday, March 14, 2020
A new order from the Governor today, following the President’s call to “flatten the curve” and slow the spread of the virus, “social distancing” is now compulsory. People must maintain a distance of six feet at all times. Also, people here have begun donning surgical masks; you see them everywhere. Mario, the concierge here at the hotel, was able to score one for me. It cost me twenty-five bucks! It’s just an everyday disposable procedure mask that nurses use, nothing fancy like one of those N-95 jobs. I hear they’re next to impossible to get now, and if you could, it’d probably cost a small fortune.
Monday, March 16, 2020
I woke up late this morning. It took me longer than usual to get my head screwed on straight. I got up feeling a little foggy—could be the meatloaf I had for dinner last night—tasted funny. When I finally got going, I found a memo from the hotel management on the floor, slid underneath the door, maybe sometime during the night. More infections in the hotel today, so the quarantine has been extended, indefinitely. Just perfect!
I’ve been staying in my room most of the time now, watching the news on TV. It’s so depressing. It seems to me like the world as I knew it before I checked into this hotel has changed into something unrecognizable. Lately, I’ve been forcing myself to get a little exercise at 5:00 p.m., when the President, flanked by his cadre of healthcare professionals, delivers his daily “virus briefing.” I turn the TV off and take a few laps, down to the end of the hallway and back. I did five laps tonight—almost broke a sweat.
Thursday, March 19, 2020
The room I’m staying in is called a business suite—I suppose because of the amenities. There’s a desk that juts out of the wall just below the window, a little microwave oven, and a tiny refrigerator, with only enough room for a six-pack. All in all, it is a lovely room. It’s clean, and the furniture, wallpaper, and paint are all new. It’s decorated in the latest contemporary style with pale earthy colors, browns, greens, blues, and grays, and lots of thoughtful, abstract patterns. It all looks very ’70s-meets-minimalist to me, but hey, what the hell do I know? My wife says my taste is all in my mouth. She says, “Tommy, if you didn’t have a tongue, you’d have no taste at all.”
This room has a great view. It’s on the seventeenth floor, room 1704. Not a bad place to be quarantined in, I suppose. I’m only two blocks away from one of the most famous building in the world, the Empire State Building, with an unobstructed, postcard view. In fact, I think—no, I am sure—this is the view that the hotel used in their promotional shot on the website.
Friday, March 20, 2020
It started to rain this morning. Not your everyday kind of rain. A torrential rain like you would expect during the Monsoon, and it shows no sign of letting up. It’s not likely the weather, rain, sleet or snow, makes much of difference now, not as far as my travel plans go anyway. Not since my hotel it seems
has become ground-zero for COVID-19 infections.
Also, I received another notice slid under the door this morning: In-room services have been suspended indefinitely. The notice says that we must place our soiled linens, bedding and towels, outside the door to be collected, and a clean supply would be left in their place. This means that I have to make the bed myself. I can’t remember the last time I had to make a bed. That’s something that Donna’s always done.
I’ve been spending more time looking out my window, and I feel as though I’m becoming a real voyeur. Directly across from my window, maybe one floor lower, I have a bird’s-eye view of the rooftop over a restaurant in the building next door. I think the restaurant’s some sort of vegan place, or contemporary, metro-type dining joint. I won’t be eating there—not my sort of thing. I like a nice thick, juicy medium-rare New York strip steak, thank you very much! I’ll bet they can’t even make a loaded baked potato there, heavy on the butter and sour cream. Yummm!
There’s a black metal door that opens to the rooftop from what looks to be a steep stairwell inside. The door makes a loud metallic swack when it crashes into the red-brick wall behind it. Just beyond the bricked doorway are two of those old-timey wooden-frame water tanks that give the rooftop the feel of a scene from the play West Side Story. Out of that black door, approximately every fifteen to thirty minutes, comes a uniformed waiter or waitress, dressed in a starched white button-down dress shirt, over which hangs a long hunter-green apron, tied around the waist.
The rooftop area must be designated for smoke breaks. I’ve been watching the way they pop out of that door and quickly light up their cigarettes, puffing them down to nubs as if it were their last. I’m assuming it’s a shorter jaunt to the rooftop than to the street, or maybe the restaurant manager doesn’t want guests to see them darting out the front door and smoking on the sidewalk. Guests—what the hell am I thinking! There are no guests these days. Crowds are not allowed! It’s phone-in, curb service only. Well, at least they’re still working, for now anyway.
Watching those kids light up reminds me of my smoking days, back when I was in college. I remember the summer of ’84. I worked on Daytona Beach, bartending at Mother Shucker’s—oysters and beer by the bucket, right on the beach! Just thinking about it, I can almost smell the sweat and Coppertone and taste the rum and Coke. After a couple of hours behind the bar on a busy night, which happens to be every night during the summer, I’d step out back for a quick smoke break. Ah! The smell of a fresh cigarette as you slide it out from the aluminum-paper-lined box, packaged like a piece of fine chocolate. Clenching it lightly in your teeth and positioning it between your lips. Then, lighting up, taking that first long drag, and the immediate relaxing feeling that settles over you as the smoke fills your lungs. And then slowly exhaling through slightly puckered lips, maybe let a little out the nose, too? It just makes you look forward to the next smoke break, even before the one you just started was over. One of these days, I might just have to see if it’s as good as I remember, back before we found out that smoking actually does cause cancer. Then again, maybe I won’t. But, watching these kids puffing away on their cigarettes and vape gadgets, I don’t think they give a shit. They’re at that impervious age; they think they’re bulletproof. Yeah, right!
News flash, that shit catches up with you!
Another thing I like about this room is that my window actually opens. It has a latch that you pull up on to unlock it, and it opens out to the left, only about ten inches. Most hotels in the city have stationary windows. When the window is closed, it shuts out most of the noise from the city. But, when it’s open, you can hear everything, the traffic from Sixth Avenue, Times Square, 36th Street, that runs in front of the hotel, and 37th Street behind it, every honking horn, squeaky brake, and angry shout, “Hey buddy!” or “Your horn blows—how about your mother?” In fact, the din of the entire city, full of life, rises up the building and comes streaming in through the open window, like the sound from a Bose speaker. It’s quite a racket, but hearing it is like hearing the heartbeat of New York City. It’s constant, always there, night and day, alive. Truly, “the city that never sleeps.”
Sunday, March 22, 2020
I keep losing track of time for some reason. I sat down in the club chair beside the bed. I thought I’d do a little reading, so I opened the Grisham novel where I had dogeared the page, and before I knew it, I fell asleep. I woke up, six-and-a-half hours later, and it was pitch black outside. Today I see that the President has stepped up his daily “virus briefings.” The dog and pony show is on twice a day now. Frustrated, I yanked the television plug out of the wall. Whoops! One of the plug prongs broke off in the wall plate. I hope I’m not charged for that. One good thing about the TV not working is that I get more writing done.
My cellphone began blaring out an obnoxious tone, which nearly brought me out of my skin. A public health notification, from the City of New York. It reads:
“N.Y.C. STAY HOME!
Do not go to the E.R. unless you are severely ill!
If you are mildly or moderately sick, STAY HOME.
By going to the E.R. with mild or moderate symptoms, you are jeopardizing the lives of others who are very ill.
Maintain Mandatory Social Distancing!
Have a nice day.”
How bad is this damn thing getting? I called the front desk to get the TV fixed. The girl at the front desk told me that she’s not sure how soon they could get someone up to replace it. Their maintenance supervisor, Mr. Cortinas, was taken to Elmhurst Hospital this morning, after testing positive for the virus. He’s in the ICU, and his prognosis is not good. His two assistant trainees, hired only last month, are overwhelmed with the inordinate amount of issues arising. It seems like everything is breaking down at once.
Today, Donna filled me in on the latest news. She started saying something about flights out of the New York area, then the call was dropped. I couldn’t get through when I called her back. I’ve been having more and more issues with cell service. Adding insult to injury, this morning, the hotel’s Wi-Fi went down, and the Health Department won’t allow repairmen into the quarantined hotel.
Wednesday, March 25, 2020
The new concierge, Larry, informed me today that Mario was feeling ill, so they took him to one of those drive-up testing sites. Mario’s infected. Good for Larry, who was moved up from laundry in the basement. I hope Mario will be okay. I really liked that guy; he’s very resourceful. He’d say, “Anything you need—big or small—anything at all, just call Mario.”
I’ve got a little tickle in my throat and a bit of dry cough—allergies, I’m sure. I’d give anything for some Benadryl now. Hurry up and get better, Mario. I think there’s something wrong with the AC in my room. I just can’t get it to cool down here. I’ve been poking at the thermostat all day, turning it down a degree or two, colder and colder.
Thursday, March 26, 2020, 4:15 A.M.
I just woke up, soaked with sweat, from the most horrible dream I’ve ever had. I dreamt that I heard a rumbling sound, coming in through the window, from the street. Odd, I thought, because there hasn’t been any traffic down there in weeks. Whatever it is, that rumbling has a metallic squeaking. The sound got closer and closer, so I hopped out of bed and plodded over to the window to have a look. There are no electric lights of any sort anywhere; it is like a blackout. All around the city, for blocks and blocks, as far as I can see, there are little fires burning everywhere. In front of the building next door, the one with the restaurant, there’s a car on fire—it’s a roaring blaze. Then, it explodes! Flames shoot out from both sides of the car, where the windows were.
Then I see it—what sounds like a WWII German tank is a huge bulldozer; it has a plow blade as wide as the entire street, all four lanes! The iron hulk is crawling down 36th Street, its diesel engine is ticking and roaring, billowing thick black smoke out of its exhaust pipes. The squealing steel tracks are louder now, chewing into the pavement as the bulldozer slowly plows whatever it’s pushing. The massive pile looks like something sloppy, flopping, rolling, and tumbling. Something twisted; maybe trees? If so, their limbs flop outward as they tumble and cartwheel, shoved by that giant machine down the middle of the street.
Then, my heart races when I recognize precisely what the bulldozer is pushing down the street. It’s an enormous pile of people. Dead people—plague victims, surely. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of bodies, and the driver is wearing a bright-yellow biohazard suit, helmet, and all. The whole scene is apocalyptic. The dozer is flanked on both sides by two other biohazard-suited men, following it along with firehoses. The two are spraying whatever is washing up on the sidewalk in its wake, back into the street. Blood and body parts, I think. The tumbling, rolling hank of bodies flop and bounce against the plow blade, all the way down 36th Street. The pile is being pushed toward a huge pyre, blazing, lighting every building in Times Square.
Saturday, March 28, 2020, I think?
Dinner tonight was eerily telling—precisely the same as lunch. An over-microwaved hotdog on a bun, beans, peas and carrots, and a thin mint. The same kind of mint that was on the pillows when I checked in, and now it’s dessert! It’s a good thing I have no appetite. I called the front desk to air my dissatisfaction with tonight’s dinner, especially the dessert. When I finally got through, I gave the young lady, who was unfortunate enough to have answered, a piece of my mind. I assured her that I would be giving them a poor rating on Tripadvisor.com, just as soon as I have access to the Internet again.
About an hour or so afterward, thinking about my complaint to the desk clerk, I had a pretty good twinge of guilt and it dawned on me just how bad things have gotten. That poor young girl is stuck here, just like me. She sounded tired, scared, and overstressed, too. I suppose that I was fortunate to have had anything at all for dinner. And the mint, which made me feel so jipped, was actually a nice gesture. It’ll probably be the last act of kindness I’ll see for a very long time.
March ?? I’m not sure of the date, or that it matters.
The rain is still coming down in buckets out there. Terrible headache, and toothache. Probably why it took me so long to fall asleep last night, too. Also, It was hot as hell in here. I got so sweaty, then chilled; I shivered so violently, I cracked one of my front teeth! Another thing that didn’t help much either was that someone in the room next door was playing their music way too loud. And, it was country music! Sounded like an old scratched up vinyl record, with that crackling, fuzzy white noise over the music. It kept skipping over and over. Even though the record skipped over and over, I couldn’t make out the tune. I don’t think I’d ever heard it before. It sounded so damned sad, I literally felt the pain in the voice of the singer. I could only make out a few lines. It went something like this:
Did you ever see a robin weep
when leaves begin to die?
That means he’s lost the will to live.
And then, it skipped over and over again. I still have a splitting headache. I need more ibuprofen; I finished the last four I had with me. I hope I’ll be able to get more, especially if this pounder persists. I’m just going to stay in bed.
I slept through the last two days, I think, and I drank my last two bottles of water. Whoever is in the room next to mine, the country music people, must have a baby. It cried all night long. I assume the mother is playing that record to sooth it, because after it starts the baby quiets down, if only for a while. I hope the child’s not sick, with the virus.
When I finally got out of bed, I pulled open the blackout curtains, and sunshine, the brightest I’ve ever seen, came pouring into the room. Then someone began pounding on my door and scared the hell out of me. A muffled voice from the other side called out, “Mister Langford, Thomas Langford?” I yelled back, “Yes, I’m coming. Just a second.” As I began to unlock the door, happy to see anyone at all, the voice on the other side snapped back at me, “NO! DO NOT OPEN THE DOOR, SIR!”
Though I had begun opening the door, only an inch or so, it was pulled closed again. I thought, then yelled, “What the hell is going on?” In the three seconds that the door was open, I saw two, maybe three, people dressed in those yellow biohazard suits. Just like in my nightmare!
“Mister Langford, I need to know that you can hear me. Okay, sir, can you hear me?” It sounded like he’s talking through a plastic drink cup, but I could hear him.
“Yes, I hear you fine. What is this all about?”
“That’s good. I need you to listen very carefully. I need to know that you’ll work with me….”
“Work with you? What? Why? I… I’m fine, not even a sniffle! What is this all about?”
“Mister Langford, my name is Doctor Merrick, Edward Merrick. I’m with the CDC. You are aware that the virus, COVID-19, has spread throughout the city?”
“Of course. That’s why I’m still a prisoner here, instead of being home in Columbus with my wife, where I should be right now! When can I leave?”
“I understand that you have a lot of questions. This hasn’t been easy for anyone, trust me. We want to resolve this quickly and get you home to your family. You want that too, right, Mr. Langford?”
“Yes, yes, so what do I have to do? What do you want from me? I told you I’m not sick, just sick and tired of being cooped up in here!”
“I understand, sir. We just need to confirm that you haven’t been infected by the virus. COVID-19 affects different people in different ways. Some of those who have been infected may not know it. They may not experience any symptoms. Some may only feel a little run-down, sleep more than usual. That’s the body’s immune system fighting the infection. Some exhibit the classic flu symptoms, fever, cough, vomiting, diarrhea, and so on.”
“I have none of that! I told you, I AM NOT SICK!”
“That’s good, Mr. Langford. Let’s confirm that you’re healthy. I have a simple test we need to perform; it only takes a few minutes.”
“Fine, that’s fine, whatever I have to do. I just want to get home. Hey—can I get some water?”
“We will get you some bottled water, but first, we need to get you tested. Here’s what I need you to do. For everyone’s safety, I need you to rotate the swing-bar lock on the door, on your side, to the right, so that the door will not completely open. Do that now, Mr. Langford.”
“Okay, just flip it over to the right?”
“Yes, that’s correct, let me know when you’ve done that, sir.”
This CDC guy outside my door, Doctor Merrick, kind of gives me the creeps. His voice is very robotic, devoid of inflection. I open the door in on the swing-bar lock; it only opens a few inches. Then one of Merrick’s men wedges his army boot against the bottom of the door, holding it in place. I get a good look at Merrick and his goons—an unsettling sight. The hoods on their biohazard suits have a mirrored visor covering their faces.
“Excellent, well done, Mr. Langford.”
Merrick’s gloved finger points to a laminated CDC badge on the right side of his suit.
“I’m Doctor Merrick; these men are my assistants. Here’s what I need you to do, Mr. Langford. Please, press your face into the opening and tilt your head slightly upward.”
One of Merrick’s assistants takes out a test tube from a small red case he’s carrying. He pulls the lid out of the test tube; it has a long yellow plastic stick with a little scrubby tip attached to it.
“This is a nasal swab, Mr. Langford. I need to swab your nose for the test. Press your face into the opening, tilt your head back slightly. This will only take a second, please, Mr. Langford. The sooner we get this test done, the sooner we can get you checked off the list. Now, don’t move, and don’t pull away.”
I press my face into the opening. The assistant sticks that plastic thing into my left nostril, a bit too deep if you ask me, twisting it around. It triggers my swallow reflex and I cough.
“Excellent. That’s it, Mr. Langford. It will only take a minute.”
Merrick hands the nasal swab back to the assistant. He opens his little red plastic box, which has what looks to be an iPad mounted on the lid. There are two gold-rimmed holes, next to a keypad. Apparently, this is the new test gadget that the President has had his scientists working on. The device that delivers an immediate result. The assistant inserts the swab into the right hole and taps a code into the keypad. He looks at the screen, then enters another sequence of numbers, while Merrick leans around to see what’s on the screen. He looks up from it at the assistant, who looks back at him and then closes the lid.
“See, I told you, Merrick, I’m not infected. Right? I’m okay, right?”
Merrick steps back from the door, and it’s pulled closed. I try the handle, but it’s locked. I bang on the door with my fists, “Hey! Merrick! What the hell! You’re supposed to let me out of here now! Hello?”
“Mr. Langford, I’m sorry to tell you, sir, you, in fact, have been infected. Your nasal swab has returned a positive test result.”
“Well, it’s wrong! It’s impossible. I’ve been stuck in here! Retake it, I tell you it’s wrong!”
“The device is accurate, Mr. Langford. It is incapable of returning a false positive. A false negative result is possible, but only in point 0-0-0-0-9-8-9-7 percent of the population. Mr. Langford, step back from the door. Do not touch the knob, sir, you could be burned.”
“What do you mean? It’s wrong, damn it! Your device is wrong! Burned? What the hell do you mean, burned?”
That’s when I heard something wheeled up to the door. They switched, whatever it is, on and it made a humming electrical sound. Then I heard a buzzing-zapping, and a very bright, chrome-white light beams in under the door. It’s an arc-welder! They’re welding the lock and door hinges. The doorknob has turned from a brushed nickel finish to a burnt metal, bluish-black, and it’s smoking. I bang my fists on the door, “Hey! You bastards, I’ll press charges! I’ll sue! You can’t do this, it’s not legal! God damn it! I have my rights! Merrick! Hello! Hello!” But that was it. Merrick never answered.
Immediately, I start thinking about how to escape. Sure, I can’t get out the door, but what about the window? I’ll climb out onto the ledge; that’ll get someone’s attention. I run over to the window, and immediately it becomes clear, I won’t be going out the window. They must have had another crew welding the window hinges while I was at the door. The glass in the window frame must be an at least three-quarter-inch-thick plate glass. Still, it’s just glass, and glass breaks. Frantically, I look for anything that I can heave into and through the small pane of glass. There’s got to be something here.
Leaning on the small table under the window, I remember how many times I ran my toe into one of the two legs holding it up. I grab hold of one and pull up hard, and the leg comes right off. I line the end up, squarely on the pane of glass, like you would a battering ram. I draw it back, then snap it forward with as much force and muscle as I can put behind it. When the end of the leg impacts the glass, the end of it shatters into hundreds of splinters. The glass isn’t even scratched. There’s no sense in trying the other leg.
I pull the mattress up by the foot and shove it aside, off the box springs. Then I shove the box springs aside, too. Perfect! It’s what I was hoping I’d find, a steel bed frame. I pull up on one of the sides, the L-shaped steel is in several pieces, held together with small wing-nut brackets that easily come apart. Now, I have a five-foot section of steel bar. Perfect! I line up the bar, precisely as I had done with the table leg, and then, wham! Nothing happens, it bounces right off the glass. Again, wham! Wham! Wham! But still no luck. What the heck! Is this glass bulletproof? Ready to give it all I’ve got, before I can lunge it forward into the glass, I misjudge the length of the bar. When I pull it back, I inadvertently thrust the backend of it through the sheetrock wall. When I pull the bar out of the sheetrock, it’s left an L-shaped hole completely through to the next room. I look through the hole but can’t see much, so I put my lips close and call out, “Hello, is anybody there?” I listen, but there’s no response.
I knock a few more holes through the wall until I have a large enough area of holes, then kick the weakened piece of the wall through. The hole is now just big enough for me to fit, so I quickly crawl through into the next room. When I get on my feet, something catches my eye and makes me chuckle. Carefully placed, just so, gleaming from the bed pillows, are those little golden-wrapped chocolate mints. I hadn’t eaten breakfast, and seeing that the Sun has sunk deep into the horizon, I missed lunch, too. I could use a little snack right about now. I take the two mints from the pillows, unwrap one, and toss it in my mouth. It’s incredible! They taste even better when you’re hungry. I collect the two from the other side and drop them in my shirt pocket.
On the nightstand, next to the window, are two bottles of water, the ones the hotel charges you $5.00 each, if you open it. I think it’s safe to say, this is a crisis, and the crisis demands that I take them. I put one in my pocket, twist the other open and wash down the mint, chugging the bottle empty. Looking around the room—it’s apparent that it’s vacant—I decide to move on. I try to remember how many rooms there are on this side of the hall. Six, maybe seven? Before I hit the brick outer wall of the building. That’s a lot of water and mints, but more importantly, maybe I’m not alone. There could be more of Merrick’s captives, and if there are; we could band together and overrun him and his cronies.
I hear someone outside in the hall, so I get down on the floor and crawl over to the door. Looking under it, I see a shadow, possibly someone walking toward me. To be sure, I need to look through the peephole. I stand and carefully move my eye over the viewer to see who’s out there. It’s Merrick’s henchmen, two of them, walking my way. I pull my head back from the door. What to do now? I don’t want them to know that I’ve gotten out of my room. I look through the peephole again. The viewer is filled with Merrick’s biohazard mask—he’s staring directly back at me!
His cupped voice calls out. Shit! He knows I’m here.
“Go to hell, Merrick! You have no right to keep me here! Let me out now!”
I give the door a hard whack with my bar.
“Mr. Langford, I do have the authority. You are among the infected now. There is little anyone can do for you, sir. You need to be kept far away from those who are not infected. It’s not me you should be battling, Mr. Langford, your fight is with the virus that’s invaded your body.”
It feels like they’ve turned up the heat in here. It must be a tactic to get me to surrender. Look at me, I’m ringing wet, I’m sweating through my T-shirt and shirt. It sounds quiet now. I take a look through the viewer again—he’s gone. They’re all gone. No matter, I’ve got work to do. I turn from the door and notice it’s already night. I go to the window and look out. I can’t believe my eyes. Have I had a premonition? Just like in my dream, little fires are burning everywhere throughout the city, as far as I can see. Quickly, I go to the door. One more look. Still, just an empty hallway. I take my bar to the far wall and thrust it through. I look inside, but it’s too dark in there to see anything. Then, I feel a cool breeze jetting lightly out of the hole, hitting my sweaty face. It feels refreshing. I think I hear something. I do. It’s that baby crying. This must be the room it’s been coming from.
“Hello! Is anyone there? Hello…”
But, nothing, no response. I do the same as before and get through this wall. Vacant, just like the last room. I grab the mints and the water, but now I need something to carry it all in. I take a pillowcase off one of the bed pillows and put everything in it. No sooner do I get done, than I notice the room has gotten uncomfortably warm. Then, I hear it again, the baby crying, and the record begins playing that song. They must be trying to calm the baby. Which means, I’m not alone. I put my ear to the far end of the wall and carefully listen. It’s coming from the next room, for sure. I have a little cough spell. To soothe my dry throat, I take a few sips from another bottle of water, then spit it out. It tastes weird, tinny maybe. They’ve poisoned it. Merrick poisoned the water. He must have, I’m feeling a little light-headed, and my heart is thumping away pretty hard.
Wham! I pop a hole through. The music is coming from this room. I hear it clearly now. The baby crying, too. No cool breeze here. A nasty, fetid odor oozes from this hole. There’s that song, but it sounds too slow. The singer’s voice is warped and low, but still full of pain, so much pain! He sings:
I’ve never seen a night so long,
when time goes crawling by.
The moon just went behind the clouds,
to hide its face and cry.
Wham, wham! Two more holes, and I wallow the bar around in them to make a bigger hole and get a better look. The ruddy glow inside, probably from all the fires burning outside, gives the room an unholy, wicked aura. The music, scratching and popping is louder now, as is the baby crying its eyes out. Why doesn’t the mother do something to comfort the dammed child?
“Hello! Can anyone hear me? Is the baby okay? Please, the record, it’s too loud, turn it off! Is the Hello….”
The reply is more of the putrid, hot air pouring through the hole. There, right there, I see the baby. It’s on the floor, in front of the bed, loosely covered with some sort of cloth—filthy and stained, possibly blood. Its bright red face is wet with tears, its skin is mottled, too red. It must be feverish, sick with the virus, yes, I’m sure of it. My eyes are burning and tearing from the smoke and fumes, I strain them to make out what’s printed on the manila tag tied to the baby’s foot. One word, in red ink, an acronym perhaps?
“Hello, someone needs to help this baby. I think it’s sick.”
I back up from the hole, about to break through the wall, when I hear the door in the other room suddenly open. I look back through the hole. Oh no, it’s Merrick. He bends down and lifts the baby by one foot, holding him upside down! Merrick lifting it higher to read the tag dangling from the child’s lifeless foot. I can’t help myself and I put my mouth up to the hole and yell with all I’ve got,
“Merrick! You bastard! What the hell are you doing?”
Merrick’s head turns toward me when he hears me yell. He lifts the mirrored shield slowly from the helmet, and I finally see it, his face. It’s horrible, indescribably evil. His glowing red, slanted eyes are devilish, with irises like a goat’s. Merrick grins wickedly and razor-sharp teeth jut out in different directions from under his cracked, bloody-lips. He’s looking right at me, through me, and I feel the pain of the child, the pain in the song, the pain of tormented souls. Pure evil. Then I get a good look at the tag, it’s twisty tied, wired to the baby’s toe so tight it looks like a black olive. Printed in red the tag reads: COVID-19!
I run as fast as I can, crawling back through the last hole, scurrying like a rat, through the next, and the next. How many rooms have I come through! I don’t remember this many rooms, this many holes, they seem endless. They all look the same. Finally, when I lumber through the last hole, the familiarity of the room, my belongings, I realize that I’m back. Soaked with sweat, I feel woozy, weak. This room is hot as hell! I feel tired now. No, more than tired, spent. There’s one bottle of water, still in my pocket, and I think, tea. A cup of tea sure would be nice right now. Then I’ll lie down, a little sleep and everything will make sense again. I pour the bottled water into one of the white coffee mugs on the counter and plop in a teabag. I put the mug in the microwave, close the door and set it on high for three minutes to boil the water. No sooner do I push “run,” than I hear it again. The baby, screaming frantically now! Although muffled, it sounds like it’s close, here in my room, or possibly just outside my door. Merrick, he’s torturing that poor baby! It’s really in pain, screaming his little lungs out! When I look through the peephole, all I see is the empty hallway and the flickering of more than a few malfunctioning fluorescent lightbulbs.
The baby’s screams are frantic. I can’t figure out where it’s coming from. I walk over to where the bed was and put my ear to the wall listening carefully. That’s when the light in the microwave oven window catches my eye. I see it—the baby is in the microwave! I turn to get to it as fast as I can, my arms stretched out as far as I can reach in front of me. The floor beneath me sinks and grabs hold of my feet, it feels like burning molten tar. Impossible to lift my legs, I fall forward, face down into the scalding lava. My face burning, I lift my eye to see the explosion inside the microwave and the window go completely blood red.
That is the last I can remember before blacking out. I came to on the floor amidst the ruins of my burning hotel room. Everything, all around me, even my body is being consumed by the fire. Yet, I’m not afraid, not worried at all. I know that this is the end for me. I won’t awaken from this, not anymore. And then I hear that song again, one last time. Now I understand it, the melody, the words, the anguish in his voice, not what but how, speak to my soul:
I hear a lonesome whippoorwill,
He sounds too blue to fly,
Like me he’s lost the will to live,
I’m So Lonesome I Could...
It’s getting harder and harder now to pull air past my lips. And I don’t care. I just want to close my eyes. Whoever reads this, please tell my wife, Donna, I’ve loved her, poppa has loved her—completely.
Wednesday, March 31, 2021
How could we have known what lie in store for us in the New Year, when 2019 turned to 2020? We had no clue. Like every year before, we staggered blindly from the last to the next. We put our trust in whichever deity or beneficent almighty that receives our devotions, taking for granted our safe arrival. There are some though, that have no such blind faith, and they believe that we come into this world the same way that we leave it, alone.
It’s been a year now since the pandemic began gobbling up people. When COVID-19 hopped on and rode people, like an invisible passenger, and it went everywhere. Unlike its hosts the parasitic bringer of death is indiscriminate, all are equal, fair game, the viral menace spares no one. ER doctors say that the COVID-19 fever is like no other, it’s incredibly high, 103˚ to 106˚. Without immediate medical attention, you soon enter the scary world of delirium. The hallucinations are horrific. At that point, you become lost, unable to distinguish between what the fever is creating and reality. I’m Donna Langford, the doctors at Elmhurst Hospital, where he was taken, say that’s how my husband, Tommy, died on March 31, 2020. Dehydrated, his brain starved of oxygen from pneumonia, together with the high fever, his mind played horrible tricks on him. He believed that what he was seeing, and hearing, was real. The physician, in charge of isolation, Doctor Merrick, said that all Tommy wanted to do was write, every detail of what he was experiencing, so he kept him supplied with paper. Anyone that reads more than a few pages quickly realizes, as I have, that Tommy had gone mad. In the end, it was a truly horrible death.
Tommy’s good friend, Jerry Ellison, died three weeks before Tommy. Jerry started running the fever, showing all the symptoms shortly after he’d gotten home. He didn’t know that he was carrying the virus when he returned from China. How could he have known? He didn’t feel sick at all, and he flew out of Hong Kong, not Wuhan. That’s what Lisa told me at Jerry’s funeral. Public health officials believe that Jerry was what is called a “super-spreader,” someone shedding the virus without exhibiting any of the symptoms. It was likely Jerry who infected Tommy, and the hotel doorman, Mario. They say that Jerry may be responsible for over 1,300 deaths between New York and Columbus. Possibly many more if you consider all the passengers on the plane from China.
On the night of Tommy’s death, I lie awake in my childhood bedroom in my old twin-size canopy bed from Sears & Roebuck, with the squeaky bedsprings, at my mother’s house in Sciotoville. With our daughter away at University I just couldn’t stand the aloneness in Columbus. Before turning in, my mother tucked me into the faded pink Holly Hobbie sheets and comforter, then opened my bedroom window and switched off my light, as she had always done so many years ago. I remember back then, falling off to sleep to the song of crickets, and shooting lights of dancing fireflies, and the crisp cool sweet smelling night air. But that night there were no crickets, nor dancing firefly lights, only darkness, not the slightest breeze. I did hear something that I had forgotten about, the lonesome, sad cries of a whippoorwill. It sang that sad repetition of notes that sting the heart of anyone vulnerable and alone, for hours it seemed. I listened until I could take no more of it and I unraveled myself from the clutches of Holly Hobbie and slam the window closed.
The song that Tommy thought he was hearing, it’s strange that he would hear that particular song. I hate that song, but I have every reason to. The last time I heard it was forty-three years ago. What’s shocking is, I never told Tommy what I’m about to share, I tried to many times, but I couldn’t. I decided to just keep it to myself, bury it in my past. I thought maybe someday, when we’re old and gray, I’ll have the chance to tell him. Now, I’ll never have that chance.
It was on March 31st 1978. I was fourteen-years-old. That day, I went to my father’s study to ask him for permission to go to the movies with a friend, Lucy Johnson. He was there, sitting behind the desk in his big black leather chair. He was writing something, and he hadn’t noticed me standing in the doorway. Smoke rose and coiled around him from a cigar that smoldered in the ashtray on the desk, next to a glass of whiskey he’d just poured.
As usual, when he was in his office working, Poppa, was listening to a song on his antique Victrola record player, the kind with the large brass speaker-horn that makes music sound tinny, like a megaphone. The record began to skip. He turned to nudge the needle, that’s when he saw me, standing there in the doorway.
He didn’t say a word to me; he just smiled and waved me over, pointing at the chair in front of the desk. I walked over and sat. He took a deep drag from the cigar, slowly blowing the smoke upwards. His slightly cloudy, dark-blue eyes met mine and he grinned, then gave a quick wink. I started to speak, I said, “Poppa, I…” but he touched his finger to his lips and blew, shhh. I thought he wanted to hear the rest of the song that was playing, an old country song he loved.
Then Poppa rest the cigar back in the ashtray and chugged down the glass of whiskey. That’s when I noticed that he was holding onto something in his right hand, resting on the desktop. Before I could ask what it was, he quickly lifted it to his right temple, and—BANG!
I nearly jumped out of my skin. Frozen in shock, no doubt at the realization of what I had just witnessed, I opened my mouth, but nothing came out. I couldn’t even scream for my mother. I’ll never forget the smell of cigar, gunpowder, and whiskey that hung thick in the air of that room as Poppa slumped down, lifeless in his chair. His eyes stare into oblivion through huge black dilated holes, his jaw fell slack on his chest, as a steady fountain of blood poured from the hole in his temple and down his face. That’s when the record began to skip again, repeating this verse, over and over:
The moon just went behind the cloud,
to hide its face and cry.
Did you ever see a robin weep
when leaves begin to die?
Like me he’s lost the will to live,
I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.
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