A few months ago, before the coronavirus infected and altered society, we could never have imagined we’d be living the way we do now. It’s equally hard to imagine what our post-coronavirus existence will, or even should, look like.
Since a view of the future will require a leap of the imagination, we asked some local fiction writers to help guide us through that leap. Our challenge to them: In 1,000 words or less, conjure a picture of what our world — especially Philadelphia — looks like about a year from now.
By Tom McAllister
When he woke in the Olney station under the ground in the dark and the cold of the night, he reached out to touch his friends sleeping beside him. Days blurring together and trains rumbling beneath them. A treacherous year, a year like 10 years, the loneliest time they’d ever known. Fluorescent lights humming above them, they woke and walked up the stairs to the road and studied the landscape to the south. Barren, silent, carless.
Before the quarantine, he could not have walked here without being accosted. A flightless bird from the Galapagos Islands, over six feet tall and 300 pounds, beloved. Everyone so accustomed to distancing, they remained on rooftops and in windows. A voice behind them shouted, “Go Phils.” Once, the city was so loud he couldn’t hear his own thoughts. Last summer, he’d lain down in a dark alley dreaming about dancing on the dugout again. His belly shaking, his tongue unfurled, his waggling fingers directing magic toward the home team.
There were five in his caravan — the blue Dog, the bald Eagle, the Snake with arms, and the orange Anarchist. At the beginning, before anyone realized how serious it was, they’d tried to raise civic spirits. To lead applause at 7 p.m. To launch T-shirts and hot dogs into sixth-story windows. The enthusiasm now replaced by punishing fatigue. He worried many nights they had been forgotten. He thought the month was May, but he could not be sure.
They passed the college, the bookstore windows no longer boarded, the ghostly howl of another train in the crypt beneath them. During the first wave, the basketball arena was converted into a hospital, and during the second wave, it overflowed. On the sidewalk, a child had drawn a rainbow and written: “Stay Positive.” A horde of boys emerged from the bar on the corner, their laughter like war whoops. Time had taken on new meanings. They approached City Hall, the statue on top a reliable beacon.
No cars anywhere.
A pair of joggers huffing past. He lurched away from their breath. Fear of droplets now ingrained.
Do you remember the parade, the Eagle said.
He’d been to two himself. So many people in one spot, no fear at all. Nakedly joyful. A vision from another world.
Sports had been the first activities declared unsafe. The athletes were finally back on the fields, the bleachers still deserted. The eerie resonance of bat cracking against ball into a silent night sky. So many people still unsure when they would work. The concept of essential redefined again and again. Playgrounds and wedding venues and bakeries evacuated. In the beginning, there was confusion then misery then hope then realism. The extensions of the quarantine first felt like a promise, and then like a prison sentence.
The Dog said, “Tell me again where we’re going.”
We’re going home.
The Snake said, “Are they waiting for us?”
They will be there.
The Anarchist said, “We’ll be safe? Because we’re carrying the T-shirt gun?”
We are carrying the T-shirt gun and the hot dog gun.
On the other side of City Hall, traffic jams. Honking, profanity shouted through open windows. A reminder of who they once were and might become again. Many had been saved by jogging and cycling through empty streets. The Mayor declared the change permanent in some areas, the road reclaimed by pedestrians.
Where once there had been homeless encampments, there were men in suits. The homeless swept aside as soon as the crisis passed. The Anarchist tried to intervene, but police restrained him. He seethed with indignant rage. He was so young still. The people loved him and feared him in equal measure. They accused him of being a cannibal. They said his eyes proved he was insane.
They passed a stretch of thriving businesses. Restaurants and stationery stores and spas. Theaters open to limited crowds, everyone yearning for the return of art and beauty. They said things like, “Let’s Get Back to Normal.” He wondered if the rest had been a fever dream. Night now overtaking the day.
A mile beyond Center City, they observed the moonscape of abandoned storefronts and foreclosed homes. A family sitting outside in cheap lawn chairs, wine poured into plastic cups, the grandmother lifting her mask to sneak a cigarette. They raised their drinks and yelled, “Go Birds.” The caravan accepted cups and sipped greedily. They had denied themselves every pleasure for months.
A line snaked out the door of the clinic and around the corner. Inside, they had the vaccine. Everyone six feet apart, mouths concealed. Eyes no longer haunted. A man in a basketball jersey stepped out of the line and shouted, “No one likes us, We don’t care.” He raised his hand and invited high fives. They hesitated. Physical contact still felt vulgar. The Anarchist charged, his own hand raised, a thunderous slap. The others followed, and the cheers down the line were loud enough to shake the earth beneath them, the exuberance a time machine. The Eagle flapped his wings and led the crowd in song.
A swell of humanity and grace and joy. A city that had spent a year grieving, exploding cathartically.
They passed the memorial covered in blue plastic tarp. Soon they would unveil it to honor the dead. Nobody liked it, but they disliked it for different reasons. The city would not feel whole until everyone was complaining again.
They arrived at the stadium after sundown. Nobody there yet, but they would be. On the TV screen looming over them, the man himself sang his song about High Hopes. Tomorrow would not be normal but it would be closer. Some of them would be called heroes, but they were just surviving. That was enough. He loaded a hot dog into his gun and fired it into the air. The others fired shirts like flares announcing: We are here, forever. You cannot keep us away.
Tom McAllister is the author of the novels “How to Be Safe” and “The Young Widower’s Handbook.” He is an associate professor in the English department at Temple University.
On the Occasion of Your Birthday, A Year from Today
By Liz Moore
1. You will choose a time and place. A playground, for example. Smith Playground, for example, on a Saturday afternoon.
(A playground is an outdoor place with objects you may climb or descend, and upon which you may spin or swing.)
Yes, you will choose: a playground, or a restaurant (a place where people eat, inside, together, side-by-side, fewer than six feet apart, sometimes so close that it’s impossible to slide gracefully in between two tables), or a museum. (Museums are places where you look at objects, or put your ungloved hands on objects and turn them over and over, inspecting, playing with them, passing them to friends and strangers whose hands are also ungloved. Some of these friends will have put their mouths on the objects they pass to you. Yes: it’s OK to take them into your hands. No: you shouldn’t put your own mouth on these objects. But you might.)
2. After you have chosen your time and place, you will tell your friends about it. You will send them an invitation.
(Friends are people you like, with whom you don’t live. Friends are people with whom you are often intentionally in the same place. Friends are people you can embrace, maskless, hands ungloved.)
(Invitations are questions. Will you come to my party? Will you tell me yes or no, in advance, so that I can order the correct number of pizzas and an appropriately sized cake?)
3. When the day arrives, you will go, with your family, to your chosen location. Your friends will meet you there. Yes: you can hug them.
(You know what a hug is: your family hugs you. You hug your family. Now you may hug your friends, if you and they wish.)
4. You will run with your friends. You will eat what they eat. Because you are 3, you will bite the same food that they bite, and probably drink from the same cups. You will hold hands with your friends. You will accidentally collide with them and then cry hot tears onto their shirts. You will wipe your nose with the back of your hand and then resume holding hands with your friends.
At some point, you will certainly have a tantrum.
An adult — maybe related to you, maybe not — will lift you into his or her arms and bring you to your parents. In the process, the adult will receive onto his or her body and clothing your tears and snot and saliva.
5. You will be sung to by a group of adults and children. You will have heard this song before, but never as it was meant to be sung — collectively, tunelessly, by a group of human beings all together in the same room, all standing shoulder to shoulder, all inhaling and expelling the same air, all wishing you many good things, all welcoming you into another year of life.
6. Pursing your lips together, you will blow air in the direction of three candles on top of a cake that is meant for human consumption. Yes: after this, you may still eat the cake.
7. The party will be over.
8. You will go home. You will feel a certain relief to be there. After so much time spent inside it, your home feels correct to you, like a member of your family. Later in your life, when you are 30 or 40 or 80, you will remember your childhood home more vividly than your parents and grandparents and great-grandparents remember theirs: all the hours you spent inside it, the doorstopper you made a toy of, the doll you fell in love with, the loose thread on the gray sofa that you spent hours caressing, the first-floor window that you gazed out of daily, pressing your small hands and face to the glass, watching masked passersby with real interest and affection. It’s here, at 1, that you learn your first words — bird, tree, dog, sky. All words for outdoor things. All wishes for the future.
Liz Moore is the author of the New York Times best-selling novel “Long Bright River.”
By Herman Beavers
Jurush is sitting at his desk, talking to a Mrs. Townes. Even though the sun is shining and there is not a cloud in the sky, she is in a man’s raincoat. Mrs. Townes is a short white lady who wears horn-rimmed glasses. They’re the kind of eyeglasses a man would wear. In fact, the glasses don’t fit her face, and she is constantly pushing the temple over her ears so they will stay on. Jurush is telling her that he’s gone over her loan application four times, and he’s concluded that it’s just not possible for her to refinance her home loan. She’s five months behind in her mortgage payments, and so what he knows is that, at the end of this conversation, he is going to tell the raincoated Mrs. Townes that her loan is in default and the bank is going to foreclose on it. When Mrs. Townes hears the bank is foreclosing on the home where she’s been living with her four children, she gets so angry she pulls a straight razor out of her purse and swipes it across Jurush’s neck.
He always wakes up when he puts his hand to his neck and it comes away covered with money.
For a moment, Jurush doesn’t know where he is or what day it is. There is the sound of pigeons cooing, a jet plane drilling across the sky, and the breeze wending its way through the leaves of the tree he fell asleep under last night. He tries to piece the sounds into a mosaic of what might constitute reality, but sitting up he feels an overwhelming sense that waking up means another shard of normalcy has fallen away and he’ll spend the remainder of the day trying to find it. But the hunger pangs ringing in his stomach make him know finding something to eat is more pressing. He looks across the street and the dumpster calls out to him. He visualizes the feast meant just for him. Today will be the day that he finds a bag containing a meal that hasn’t been discarded after a few bites. No, Jurush thinks, today is the day someone who’s seen me sleeping under the tree has decided to buy a meal and leave it in the dumpster for me to find, meant for me and me alone.
As he walks across the street, Jurush begins performing his favorite mental task. He looks over, sees a burned-out husk that had once been a luxury car. The Acura badge on the front grill of the car sparks a flow of numbers through his head. Nearing the dumpster, he runs through the formula for calculating interest: interest rate divided by the term of the loan multiplied by the principal would be the interest owed over the life of the loan. The car still has three of the four tires, and only one of the windows is missing. So, he begins to work the numbers: 45% interest divided by 72 payments equals 0.625. Multiplied by $56,000, equals $35,000 interest, bringing the cost of the car $91,000. Jurush ponders what the car would cost if it had four tires, but he quickly pushes the thought aside because he knows that there is someone someplace willing to buy the car “as is.”
Crossing South Street, he reaches the dumpster and lifts the lid. At one point in time, his nostrils would have been assaulted by the smells issuing from all the trash, rotting fruit, moldy bread, general decay. But what keeps dumpster diving bearable is that when he got ill, he lost his sense of smell. More than a year later, Jurush long recovered from the virus, it has still not returned.
Standing on tiptoe and peering inside the dumpster, Jurush is startled to see a woman’s body wrapped in a man’s beat-up raincoat. The corpse looks fresh, but the woman’s face is gone. With his body slack at the sight of a dead woman, he is about to shut the lid and head toward the dumpster behind the diner on Front Street. But he glances at the corpse’s left hand and notices an expensive wedding ring. If she was the victim of a vicious attack, as he had assumed, why didn’t her attacker take the ring? He peers down to examine the diamond. It’s substantial; a ray of sunlight strikes the gem in just the right way so that a defiant glint shoots off the stone. Jurush feels challenged to act.
In his first life, when he worked at the bank, news of a dead woman’s body found in a dumpster would have triggered a scintilla of sadness, then fallen away, replaced by thoughts of all his obligations. But today he has nothing else to do. His only obligation is to find out who this dead woman was. Why would someone take her life, but leave the expensive diamond ring on her finger? Who was this woman? What excited her when she was alive? With so many questions to answer, Jurush wondered if there would be time enough ... No, time was not the issue. He recalled something his boss told him the day he was let go. “The best way for us to ride this thing out is to get leaner. That’s why we have to shed middle management salaries.” The boss was wrong, of course. He’d failed to anticipate how the pandemic would drag on till the banking system collapsed.
The task before him felt immense, like standing in a dark place at night, a railroad crossing perhaps, awash in awe and fright, with large fuel tanks looming in the darkness, loud rocking of railroad cars hauling freight. Jurush stepped toward the dumpster, his hunger slaked. Finding a plastic milk crate, he set it down in front. Stepping up on the crate, his left hand hesitated over the dumpster lid like someone holding pen over paper, wondering what to say. Lifting the lid, he reached down to get a better look at the ring. Holding the dead woman’s left hand in his right, Jurush felt a wave of sadness pass clear through him and rise into the bright Philadelphia sky. He searched for words, anything to commemorate this woman’s suffering, to give her death attention.
He felt he’d gotten back to something he couldn’t remember feeling since before the virus took so many lives and communities came unraveled. Stepping down off the milk crate, moving toward a street teeming with clues, Jurush suddenly felt purposeful, necessary ... caring.
Herman Beavers is a professor of English and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania, where he teaches courses in African American literature and creative writing. He lives in Burlington, N.J.