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Fiction: Be Careful What You Wish For: A Short, Sad Pandemic Story

Judith Mahoney Pasternak May 13

They tell me it’ll kill me, but they won’t say when.      
—“Cocaine Blues,” as sung by Dave Van Ronk

I had eaten more chocolate than I should have, more than was good for me. It sometimes triggers migraines—you can look it up. I was feeling rather green about the gills. I needed to sit down, pull down the mask that I had put back on after the chocolate, and smoke a cigarette.

         Let me be more precise: I needed to take in a stimulant, pharmacologically speaking. Stimulants chase away migraine. You can look that up, too. Any stimulant would likely have done the trick, with cocaine and caffeine probably at the top of the list and nicotine—pharmacologically speaking, also a stimulant—not far behind.

         Cocaine was out. I’ve only had it in my possession a couple of times in my life, and this wasn’t one of them. Caffeine should have been easy, but—here’s the O. Henry fluke number one in this story—I had spent all the cash I had on the chocolate and every piece of plastic in my pocket was in end-of-the-month flux and would almost certainly have been turned down. And yes, I live close to the bone. Go ahead, call me a superannuated hippy, although I prefer writer. Or, if you must, artist.

         None of that matters. The point is, I needed to sit down and smoke a cigarette, I needed to do it soon, I needed the seat to be free, and home was a mile away. I needed a park bench.

         Remember park benches? Heavy wooden beams painted dark green and resting on squat concrete posts, and full, always full, of people, mothers and/or fathers of children playing on the concrete, old men reading their papers, old women knitting, while on the grass in front of them dogs lie panting and lovers lie entwined and panting too?

         We’re not allowed to gather in the parks now, and the benches stand empty and desolate. I needed one, although if crowds are dangerous, desolation can be as well. The papers say that crime is on the rise.

         All those thoughts took less time than it takes me to tell them. I was still standing on the sidewalk, OD’d on chocolate, a little green about the gills and needing to sit down and smoke a cigarette, faut de mieux. “C’mon, God,” I asked Nobody in particular, “show me a bench.” I may have muttered it out loud—I do that sometimes.

         Anyway, whomever I had called on answered the prayer, if that was what it was, and I remembered that a couple of streets away there was what could be called in some cities a small place, in others a vest-pocket park. I turned some corners and found it, empty and desolate indeed, with four empty benches and not another soul to be seen in any direction. I sat down, took a mirror and a pack of smokes from my bag, and sort of simultaneously pulled down the mask, lit up, and ascertained that indeed I was a little green.

         The cigarette helped. Face it, empty calories still provide a body with fuel, too. I had finished smoking, replaced my mask, and was feeling marginally perkier when the unmasked, smelly man appeared out of nowhere, leaned in close to me, and said, “Your wallet.” Then he said, “Give it to me.”

         I was pretty sure I was still unnaturally pale, if not quite green anymore. I looked him in the eye and said, “I have coronavirus. I’m very sick. Move away or I’ll take this down—“ I pointed—“and breathe right in your face.” Then I coughed.

         He stood up. “You don’t look good,” he admitted. I told him I was probably dying.

         “Shit!,” he said. “My life story all over again.” And he turned and shuffled away into the same nowhere from which he had appeared.

• • •

         I had lied to him, of course. As far as I know, I didn’t have coronavirus—not that day.

         He probably had it, though. Eight days later I woke up with a 99.3 fever and a headache that dwarfed remembered migraines. By the following day, my temp was up to 101.6, I hurt in places I hadn’t known I had, I couldn’t catch my breath, and, weirdly, I couldn’t taste or smell the food I didn’t feel like eating or even the smoke from my cigarettes.

         Everything after that is fuzzy and fragmentary. I remember being in an ambulance but not arriving here. I don’t know how long I’ve been here, but I know that “here” is the coronavirus ward, and I know I have it now. I’d give my life for a cigarette, but I think that ship may already have sailed.

         You know what’s funny, though? If I hadn’t sat down on the park bench for that cigarette—well, they always said smoking would kill me, didn’t they?

         But they didn’t say when. Or how …

• • •

         I’ve pieced together as coherently as I could the account related to me by my aunt, the writer Jane Fellowes Cooper (1965-2021), from behind a glass barrier in the COVID-19 ward of St. Louis Hospital in New York City. Moments after she uttered those last sentences, a medical team arrived and pushed a respirator down her throat, but by that time she was unconscious. She never woke up and died two days later. She was 55.

         She was the author of two novels, Now and Then (1991) and Things I Wish I Hadn’t Done (2006), and two short story collections, Nine Stories by J.F. Cooper (2000) and Nine (More) Stories by J.F. Cooper, (2012). This is her obituary, also written (mostly, anyway) by her, as she would have wanted it to be.

                                                                                                         —Amanda Fellowes

• • •

Judith Mahoney Pasternak is a New York-born writer and journalist now living in Paris. She is the author of seven books, stories and poems published in the U.S., England, and France, and hundreds of articles, commentaries, and reviews.

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