The Zero Enigma
Driving to work the other day, when I still did that sort of thing, coal-black specks began to fill the dull sky. Distant, hazy, but I sensed their presence. Cumulus billows of them. Flowing from the east.
“You can’t see it,” I reminded myself. The virus. It doesn’t work that way. But it felt that way, and even acknowledging the math and science of the matter didn’t stop me from watching the drivers around me, wondering if they were aware of the rising storm, waiting to see who would be the first. Infected.
But here in Clallam County, there is no first. Not yet. There is zero.
The zero that has occupied, with the hardiness of a North Olympic Peninsula lifer, the column designated Positive. Right there on the Clallam County Public Health COVID-19 page.
More than a number, this zero. A mindset. Resistance. As the days move from caution to flattening the curve, and numbers rise all around and people check the dictionary to be sure they grasp the full meaning of exponential, we are zero.
Word is we as a county are critically low on personal protective equipment, nearly at capacity in specialized care, and reserving with zeal those final, precious testing kits. People joke about all those rules being imposed upon “city folks” and how it just doesn’t work that way out here.
This is the enigma of zero.
As long as we are here, in this space before 1, we are outside the science and the rules. We are outside the experience of others, distant.
Still, someday—maybe tomorrow—zero will be impossible.
It works that way.
The novel I wrote sits on a shelf in draft form while I send to the universe, and one publisher at a time, my intentions. Meanwhile, the friendly algorithms of Facebook send me weekly reminders that I ought to post something. One can ignore the robots for only so long. Beginning today, a series of six posts, one each day. The story living on a shelf has a few things to say.
What unspeakable acts bent that boy, drove him into a corner, head bowed, all knees and elbows in the shadows, gnarled in shame. Did he burrow into his squirming brain from there? Stumble forward into a black fissure as reality tore away from his grasp? Or was he born into grandiosity rendered by an unreliable mind? Faulty from the start. Either way, he lived. A survivor before we popularized a name for it. Then came the flames, and he survived again.
I am the survivor of a survivor.
When I’m not writing, I’m not fully alive. So, I’ve been half-dead for most of six decades, drifting in and out of a haze of depression. I often yearn to reach out, to connect, to know what friends (past and long past) are doing, to offer ideas, to create—but as much as I want that, I remain motionless. Non-communication by paralysis of will. And even if I break free, another barrier awaits me: anxiety, the inexhaustible fuel of fear, stoking the conviction that disaster resides at the heart of all actions, thoughts, intentions, possibilities. Reaching out will be met by dismissal or derision; vulnerability is a blank canvas, with five shades of humiliation on the palette. Trust haunts this space as a restless ghost. Unworthy, it moans.
One evening five years ago, after a full day of sessions at a writers conference, I stood in the sand at a public park, looking out over the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Gentle, shin-high waves broke as they approached, dissipating at my feet. The waters invited my attention, and when I gave it, they pulled away to leave an idea: That I would write a story to help me understand what happened when the Ozark Hotel burned and my father nearly died and I met his survival with disappointment. But it wouldn’t be a story about him because I didn’t really know anything about him, and it wouldn’t be a story about me because I’d already written that one. This would be a story about the idea of a man like him and the idea of a man like me, but in the latter case, one who chose to stay in place. I didn’t know anything about that person, either, but I was curious.
Looking back to explore alternate outcomes has revealed previously unseen emotional territory and plausible histories. I don’t usually think much about alternate paths. But I often see endings. Since childhood, I’ve been able to see the end. Violent. Unjust. Grotesque. Usually by accident, murder, disease, or negligence, and occasionally unbridled panic: the worms in my brain conspire to persuade my heart to stop beating while I sleep. These are not mere day-dreamy images but visceral experiences; I witness death, feel the chill, recoil at the gore, and in a final moment of awareness, I feel resignation poke me in the throat.
That story I wrote involving me—it began east of the Cascades and ranged from the Mississippi to the Mogollon Rim, but at all times with my mind focused on one place. And now, here I am on the north Olympic Peninsula. Finally. Now I await the closure that will appear at any moment in a magical, profound moment. Because I have chased that moment across five states and fifty years, so it damn well better settle on my shoulder while I’m sitting on a beach log, the scent of brine wafting in a cool breeze, a gull slicing a slow turn inches above the water. Any time now.
Somehow, I’ve taken up running, so running has found its way into this story. It’s an activity that consistently earned only my scorn, even though I could unleash bursts of speed as a teenager; not track star speed but buoyant, taunting streaks of energy that kept me free and elusive, my super power in play and my insurance in escape. Now I cannot sprint but I can run longer and farther than ever. To what end? Fitness and personal bests. The therapy of rhythmic foot strikes. The sensation—only a moment or two, perhaps, out of two miles, or five, or six—that I am alive and in the world.
I wish I could run forever.