MQR is bringing you dispatches from contributors and friends of the journal around the world, sharing the particularities of how the COVID-19 virus has impacted their communities (both literary and geographical). Thank you to our contributors for their willingness to share their thoughts with us.
On a walk through Banglatown, Detroit, my sister and I come upon a yard piled with scrap. Through the ragged fence slats, we make out bundles of chicken wire, tires, a bathtub, bicycles. We can’t tell if the house is occupied, but in the recess of its front door there’s an abandoned cat shelter: empty bowls and cans, crumpled water bottles.
A matted ginger with a blunt tail climbs down from a tree stump that splits the sidewalk. His eyes and nose are gooey, and when we pet him his purr rattles and wheezes. The veterinarians are still open, but my income’s been slashed in half and Bunnie’s is gone.
We return the next day with Tupperwares of kibble rationed from our own cats. The ginger eats while two other cats pop their heads through a break in the fence, watching. Bunnie coos to them and they bolt.
“You know as soon as we leave that they’re going to come eat all this food. That’s rude,” she pronounces.
“They’re social distancing. They’ll FaceTime us later.”
“Thanks for letting us be friends with you,” Bunnie says to the ginger flung at our feet, drooling in gratitude. She dabs the ooze from his eyes with a baby wipe.
Home in Flint, our mom texts us Bible verses. From Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”
When I first moved to Detroit three years ago, I was struck by the ways God was tucked into boarded neighborhood churches, in the calls to prayer and the bells tumbling over rooftops, in scripture painted on vacant houses. I rolled those verses around my mind while I sat in the radiation oncology waiting room watching the fish tank, Bunnie bolted to a table in the next room. There was a house we passed in Virginia Park with Jeremiah 29:11 painted over the windows. “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
In the pandemic, I find solace only in numbers. I count the months since Bunnie’s last chemo treatment, the years since my mom inhaled lead vapor from the humidifier she sleeps beside. With Bunnie’s immune system recovered and our mom’s lungs armored in steroids, I know that should we catch the virus, Bunnie and I have a 0.2% chance of dying, our mom, 3%. Surely, we’ll be spared. I remind myself of this every day while Detroit’s numbers rise, and FEMA makes a 1,000-bed hospital on the Detroit River because poverty we learn, or are reminded anew, is a comorbidity, and grief comes first to those well-acquainted with it.
On our walks, I notice other forms of prayer. A bungalow covered in memorial t-shirts, stretched and stapled to the boards on the windows. RIP Rudy. RIP Granny. The sun-bleached faces of the dead smile out from the cloth, watching. Candles and liquor bottles line the property like a fence. For someone, this is a holy place, an altar.
As Bunnie and I approach the house one afternoon, an elderly man slams a truck door and shuffles toward us. We step back, adjust the scarves binding our mouths. He has keys, a grocery bag.
“Are these your cats?” we ask. He glances back at us before pouring water into a bowl. “We’ve been petting the orange one,” I offer as a declaration of our good intentions.
“Roamy?” he says. We echo the name, and he explains, “I call him that because he’s always roaming around.”
Roamy gets those colds, with his nose all runny, every spring. Sometimes he limps, too—arthritis or an injury that didn’t heal right. There’s also a striped cat, Doodlebug, and a calico that we’ll probably never see because she’s scared of everyone but him. He calls her Granny because he’s been feeding her nearly ten years, and she must be old as hell.
Bunnie sets her Tupperware on the tree stump between us and the man, then steps back. He takes the food and thanks us. A siren whips through the neighborhood, hidden by all these houses kneeling for mercy.
“We’d like to visit still,” I say. It seems to take him aback, but he tells us that we’re welcome.
In Philippians, I like best the verse immediately after the verse our mom sent: “In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress.”