Circumstance . . . but everything is circumstantial. Drat circumstance! When we were told to shelter in place, the place was Gainesville, home to my employer, the University of Florida. A month later, it would have been somewhere else, somewhere in many ways less advantageous, two rooms in Hamburg or London, with rumours of hoarding and the parks off-limits. It is April. April Fool’s Day. The Dow has begun the quarter by shedding another 900 points. Easy come, easy go. Xerox’s hostile takeover of HP has been pulled; Deutsche Telekom’s merger with the misnamed Sprint, strangely, has gone ahead. Whole sectors of what people were pleased to call the economy are shuttered, put away, in a deep sleep, are as though they had never been. Airlines, hospitality, retail, the service industry, manufacturing, the so-called gig economy. Amazon deliveries still go from door to door like the postmen in ‘Aubade’, which is to say, ‘like doctors’, who in fact don’t go from house to house, except in Larkin’s plague-y imagination . . . Did we really once fly to places for little or no reason, eat out, flock to attend cultural and sporting events, spend money on things that weren’t food, think about matters that weren’t hygiene-related, stay places that weren’t home? Ventilators are the new cars; GM has been put on to making them. Now ventilators have started getting a bad press; only a minority of patients, it seems, survive their ministrations. What, pray, will be the new technical miracle, the new ventilators? Ten million Americans have lost their jobs in the last fortnight, 5,000 have died, 200,000 been infected, the biggest national contribution to the over 1 million now, worldwide.
Someone in Colorado said it the other day: It sucks; we’re blessed. It’ll do. I don’t recall that Gainesville has ever been so beautiful. A cold front with rainstorms has just passed through, unusually late in the season, and is now out over the Atlantic, raining into the sea, which, as A.E. Housman once said, remains salty. But the air in its wake comes straight from Manitoba, and is insanely beautiful, and very evidently not from here. Cloudless, dry, clear. Lacquered blue. Stars, a thickening moon, upside down, the way it hangs here, for a reason I don’t understand. I don’t sleep; nights are for anxiety. Rustling noises, anxiety and the World Service. Owls hoot and retch. A chubby raccoon gets my attention by shaking the flowers outside the window. I shine a torch at it, barely a foot away, and it waddles huffily over the fence. It is in the fifties at night, seventies by day. Paradisal. Shorts and long-sleeved shirts. The birds are rowdy, cardinals in hot pursuit, strangely, of other, paler, cardinals. Northern Florida was always patrolled by vultures; they held the road pizza franchise. Strangely, in the last year or so, crows have started to appear. Corvid-19 . . . Trees put out sprays and tufts of glossy, delectably soft new leaves. Green leatherette. (They will all be dusty grey cowboy chaps by summer.) Fragrances one can’t place. Drifts of pollen in the gutters and on car windscreens, like gold dust. I attend to my baby lemons. A hummingbird visits. Every day feels and sounds like Sunday. There are noticeably fewer planes in the sky, and those there are fly higher. Perhaps they are observing social distance. Time has stood corona-still. It wouldn’t really surprise me to see someone clopping down the street on horseback.
I wonder what I have done to deserve anything like this. The semester is suddenly broken in pieces. And it was all going so . . . semestrally. I look down at my hands and feel responsible. One week, we were meeting in our windowless basement classroom to talk about Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia, the next we weren’t. I briefly think about having them here, in the house, then, fearing the legal and medical consequences, I can see I’d better not. I write lots of mass-address emails, tender, solicitous, hortatory. It is as though the actors have gone, and the director is left padding around the stage, mumbling, ‘I don’t understand it, normally A would be here in his baseball cap, B over there, it’s the cue for C to appear with her cup of coffee and her Tupperware dish of salad. I don’t even have understudies. Where is everyone?’ And like the director, I feel not unhappy, but puzzled, a little foolish, bereft. I ask them to email me their written work, which, in fits and starts, they do. They have all gone by now, back to Mom or Dad, or both, to ‘South Florida’, or ‘the Orlando area’. I call them my diasporated ones. I hear little from them. I have no sense of any vestigial gravitational pull from the class, or the university, of a reflective, obedient orbit returning vital signals. They are more like meteorites than working satellites: dusty rocks, good for the occasional collision.
The streets, apropos, are almost empty of traffic. When I bicycle to school, or to one of the three stores we shop at, I hardly have to stop at the main roads. There is practically nothing on them. In our little local streets, traffic is largely foot traffic, perambulating couples and small families, people with dogs I have never seen before, an endless profusion of dogs. I see them all passing up and down like extras behind the thin jasmine hedge. It seems Americans have discovered the passeggiata. They walk – we walk – before meals, between meals, after meals. We nod, wave, smile. ‘All right?’ we say and mean it. ‘Take care.’ Every exchange seems exemplary, perfect in its well-intentioned economy. Strangely, building is still going on, new construction, reroofing, roadwork, gardening. I see the gangs congregating outside now mainly drive-through lunch places or perched up on roof beams with their nail guns. Beds of jagged yellow lilies have been planted on the deserted campus, to look good for someone. It’s as though there’s a Potemkin village in the works. I wonder who is coming to inspect. The world has stopped, and everyone has got off.