“Dispatch from a Pandemic: Pittsburgh” by Madison Kerlan

kerlan art
Madison Kerlan

In January, my best friend coaxed my clawed hands from the medicine cabinet.  In February, I met my partner; January felt far away, a piece of some remote past.  In March, the world ended. April is lonely.

corona samI have always believed that everything happens for a reason—that the universe is saturated with intentionality, like organized chaos. My mind has been heavy and battered since grade school, and perhaps ascribing responsibility to the world for all its pain (and mine) lifted my shoulders; perhaps if the universe were in charge, I would be absolved of my role in all the twists of my life. I treat superstitions like road signs sprinkled about (by who? I have never believed in a God) and so I am always scanning the room: I collect pennies that my late grandfather plants around my feet in the garden, the sidewalk, the elevator, always tails-up. As a child, I once heard that tails-up coins were bad luck—and frankly, my grandfather, cynical and skeptical and blunt as he was, would have thought that was a dumb idea. I imagine he is either teasing me or trying to teach me a lesson, dropping his two cents from somewhere that is not Heaven (he refused to believe in ‘fairytales’) but sounds like it. Sometimes, I drive out to his old cabin, abandoned and overgrown, to admire his art. I park my car in the brush and watch a massive, careening metal dragonfly—the same one inked into my forearm—spin, suspended by thick rope and no wind. At home, I crane my neck to the flickering bulbs of string lights and candles blown out by nothing, searching for clues suspended in the void of my bedroom. I have spent an entire decade turning the intangible over and over between my fingers, listening for the crackle of something that could be just as aptly named coincidence—but maybe it’s not. This exercise keeps me going.

 I met my partner, John, just days shy of one month from the day I wanted to disappear. I quit cigarettes, started seeing a therapist, sat outside more often, learned how to breathe in between thoughts. I was relieved that I was still around to meet them, and I internalized this meeting as a clue—one which reaffirmed that I made the right choice back in January.

“Madison,” calls John’s tired voice, standing beside the open window. They hold a cup of tea in their hands, my wool socks insulating their feet. “What are you doing?”

“It’s an exercise in vulnerability,” I say, blank. I am lost somewhere inside my mind, stoned, lying on the slope of roof shingles just beyond the common room at three o’clock in the morning. My feet are pressed against the wooden planks of the upstairs deck, for balance. Off in the distance, my eyes follow the wheels of the tractor trailers rumbling down the curves of the highway.

“Be careful,” John says, extending a full glass of water through the window frame. They turn away, climbing the stairs back to our bed.

Late at night, I often find myself thinking about circumstance on top of my temporary roof of my temporary house—a refuge, for now. The trees lining the far edge of my temporary backyard are bare-skinned and sad. During the daytime, we sit together beside the burrow of the tenant groundhog. To him, I offer bunches of clovers; to the trees, I offer my lonely company.

I look to other people making sense of circumstance, hoping that circumstance is universal and that their clues can be my clues too.

This is a time to reground yourself, to make art, to spend time with your family playing board games and finally listen to the podcast you bookmarked six months ago, I hear, ears tuned to the wind and the hum of distant concrete.

I pick around the edges of roof shingles, thinking they are my fingers. Last week, the virus sent a friend of a friend into cardiac arrest. Proximity bites down.

What is the universe trying to tell me?

How do clues change when bound to death?

I count the bodies and try to make sense of the math: 144,926 is not a lucky number.

This essay was supposed to end somewhere else—somewhere lighter, I think, fingers floating over the keyboard. You’re supposed to be writing your way into being okay.

Vulnerability comes packaged with the truth, which sits hot and inconsolable on the bed of my tongue: I don’t know who will be okay and who won’t in the aftermath of this all. I don’t know if I’ll ever be okay, I don’t know if the world will ever be okay, and I don’t know if okay will ever look the same again. For now, we are all suspended, together, in uncertain air.

For now, I am trying to focus on certainties—the clues I can hold in my hands, firm and tangible. I know that the roof waits for me to sit with them every night, watching bits of traffic sift through, and I know that John will arrive with quiet footsteps and a yawn to hand me a glass of water. I know that my bare feet still track mud from the grass of the backyard, and that I am always welcome to share my company with the trees and the groundhog, fattened with clovers. I know there is a slice of strawberry cheesecake from my mother sitting in the fridge, and that I will see her again, soon. I know that although the world seemed to end in March, it continued in April, and although April is louder and lonelier than before, there is still May, and June, and July, and August. For now, I collect my tails-up pennies in a glass jar, saving gas money for the day we begin again.

–April 16, 2020



Madison Kerlan is a staff writer for Sampsonia Way Magazine and undergraduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, studying nonfiction writing and gender, sexuality, and women’s studies. Their writing orbits issues of social justice, love, mental health, and the everyday, with recent publications appearing in Pendemic (Ireland) and Pandemic (Netherlands).