I regularly walk in the seventeenth-century cemetery near my house, even more necessary during the current pandemic when there’s no yoga, no gym, no pool and this senior citizen is trying to remain fit and strong. From the top of the hill the cemetery is a peaceful park full of tall trees and walkable paths. At the tomb of Reverend Cotton, I remember another epidemic: “The Great Throat Distemper” of 1751. Though only about 100 died that was nearly ten percent of the town’s residents. He berated his parishioners for showing “no correction” despite losing their offspring. That disease turned out to be diphtheria, unknown at the time, and there was no vaccine until 1923.
Where, I wonder, are the bodies of the natives who’d been here for thousands of years? More of them were killed by European diseases than in any epidemic. Those folks would have known about the Black Death that killed one-third of the European population in 1349. Do comparisons matter if it’s your loved one who’s suffering?
As I headed downhill I spotted a woman lying across the blacktop path. She was sprawled face down connected to white earbuds. Next to her lay two empty whisky nips and a half empty bottle of Miller’s beer. Nearby her shopping cart held a couple of black carryalls. She was twenty or thirty something, skinny, blond, wearing gym clothes. My first thought—she’s in trouble; my second thought—don’t go too close—she might be infected.
“Are you all right?” I asked
“Yes,” she answered without moving. “Just listening to–.” She named a pop group I’d never heard of. I veered off the path to avoid her but before leaving I looked to see if she was still here. This time she was sitting with her back against a grave stone, the earbuds still attached. I moved toward her, staying the requisite six feet away and again asked if she needed help. Without any prodding she blurted her story.
“You know that house nearby that’s a shelter? I’m from Pittsfield, “she said. “I’ve never been to this town before, but they sent me here from rehab. I hate it, but it’s the only place that had room.”
She’d been clean and sober for weeks, she insisted, but this was too much—“being stuck in a crappy room in a shitty house with a bunch of total losers.” Getting back into rehab would be a huge improvement—at least she’d had her own room there. “My life’s like a country song—I lost my man, lost my dog and my house burned down. Sounds like a joke but it’s true—it drove me to drink too much.”
I asked if she knew about the pandemic—was she feeling safe?
“Are you kidding me?—how can I stay healthy in that trap? You think you can keep distance when there’s a dozen skanky women in there, some with bawling kids. Talk about unhealthy!” Her voice was loud, the rising decibels of someone too drunk to modulate. “Maybe you have a room for me in your nice house?”
That shut me up. No amount of liberal guilt could make me take in a drunken stranger during a pandemic. “Look, I’m just trying to be helpful. I mean if you want to talk….”
She cut me off, “I don’t see what you could do, unless you want to pay for a hotel room.”
I actually felt in my pockets, an empty gesture since I knew I had no money with me. I didn’t even carry a phone. “Why don’t you try to get back to rehab?” I asked lamely.
“Are you shittin’ me—there are waiting lists. I had to wait months to get in. Look lady, have a nice life—just let me sit here and have some peace for a little while.”
I shrugged and headed down the hill feeling an unpleasant mixture of anger and sympathy. Should I call someone?—not the police, surely. When and if the quarantine ends, I tell myself, I’ll stop at the shelter on Sea Street, and see if she’s still there.
–May 5, 2020
Judith Beth Cohen’s novel Seasons was published by The Permanent Press of Sag Harbor, New York. Excerpts appeared first in The New American Review. The book was originally published in German translation by Rowohlt of Hamburg as part of their international New Woman Series and has been reissued as an ebook. Her short fiction has appeared in The North American Review, New Letters, High Plains Literary Review. Recent fiction has been in Cordella #20, 2020, The Sunlight Press, and is forthcoming in FERN. Her nonfiction publications include “Python” in I Thought My Father Was God, edited by Paul Auster. After a long career as an educator at Harvard, then Lesley University, she is now a semi-retired yoga teacher. She frequents Harvard Book Store and Porter Square Books, both in Cambridge, Massachusetts.