“Dispatch from a Pandemic: Shelby, North Carolina” by Stephen Bishop

Sam Schwindt

These are strange times. You may have heard that once or twice recently. Walmart closed here—24/7 Walmart—just to restock. The fact that a Walmart closed, even temporarily, ought to be a warning to most normal people, and yet my wife thought I was overreacting.

“You need to stop worrying so much about the coronavirus,” she said.

“I’m not worried about coronavirus, just dying,” I said, as I unpacked $300 worth of groceries from a local grocery store that was substantially higher in price than Walmart. My wife, who is usually in charge of buying groceries, seemed perplexed by some of my purchases for outlasting the apocalypse. I had ten bags of potato chips, five cases of Diet Cokes (Ginger Lime), five frozen pizzas, and enough double-bagged cans of corn, butter beans, and green beans that the tires on the back of the Toyota 4Runner bulged a bit. I basically went on a supermarket sweep for junk and canned food.

“Do you think we’re going to starve?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said, “if we have to depend on my farming ability to provide food, we will starve.”

“Why’d you get three different types of ChipsAhoy!?”

“I just saw them and wanted them,” I said.

After the physical exertion of unloading groceries, I went to the couch (it took about thirty minutes to unload everything and stack the pantry to my wife’s standards) to rest while binging on coronavirus news. I noticed that apparently people in New York City were going to bars for one last drink before all the bars closed down. In the rural South, home of many Baptists, we don’t really approve of public drinking at bars, which means most people have to drink in the privacy of their own closet—but I did notice a similar “last-call” phenomenon happening at the big-box hardware store. I went to Lowe’s, thinking it would be deserted, and, lo and behold, there was a long line of men trying to checkout at the two registers near the lumber aisles. Best I can figure, all the men had the same idea: We’d better stock up with building materials one last time. For many rural men, there’s nothing more relaxing than swaggering through a hardware store, checking the straightness of boards, and standing proudly behind a full lumber cart.

Maybe we all figured if we’re going to be sequestered at home soon, we might as well focus on home improvement. I bought enough installation, concrete-board siding, and OSB sheathing to re-side another section or our old farmhouse. That’s a more productive use of time than binge-watching news on the couch or, well, binge-drinking in a closet.

I guess it’s times like a pandemic that I’m glad I live in a rural area in an old farmhouse. Sure, we don’t have good hospitals and many local politicians thought the virus was a hoax (most no longer do), but we’ve got plenty of space between our dwellings, which seems to be important during a time of social distancing. Even our most concentrated housing developments, trailer parks, have more than six feet between single-wides.

But the ever-apparent truth with this virus is it’s an equal-opportunity infector. It doesn’t respect the rural-urban divide, or the politics that keep that divide wedged open. We have yet to have the first coronavirus case diagnosed in our county, but we know it’s coming. The fear is already here. And we, rural people, are already hunkering down and praying for people in the cities (admittedly, out of some self-interest). We suspect that if the prestigious hospitals in the cities fall, then our rural healthcare system stands little chance.

Like I said, these are strange times: rural and city folk stand together.

–March 19, 2020

MePhotoStephen Bishop lives in Shelby, NC, where he writes mostly about agriculture. His work has appeared in many farming publications, and his humor pieces regularly appear in Bee Culture magazine.