The day I return to the Texas Panhandle, where the Caprock Escarpment dissolves into the High Plains, I, like millions of others, had lost my job and a virus had infected enough people globally that entire countries and cities shut down. I quarantine alone in my aunt’s vacant house in Lubbock. I index my desire just to keep track of the infinite present.
Out on the Llano Estacado, sunsets shred flat light of a dusty city. While I run shores of Buffalo Lake, vultures hover nearby. Feast. Wait. Stare. Repeat. After I leave, my aunt calls and recounts my uncle’s chemo routine over the phone. Eat. Wait. Radiation. Repeat. His body is so tired. He just wants to come home, she says. They’ve been in Houston for the past seven or eight months. I don’t offer prayers. Just suck my teeth and whistle low enough for God’s ears.
Doctors in Houston have decided nothing more can be done for my uncle, so I move in with my parents, back to the rural town split by US Highway 385, to the house I grew up in, on a road a mile away from the cemetery where my abuelita is buried. My aunt and uncle return to Lubbock. They have been married almost as long as I have been away from the Panhandle — nearly 22 years. I see him one last time, in good spirits. We hug and he says, keep pushing forward. I assure him that I will.
I learned years ago prairies do not hear prayers. Wind sweeps them up or heat incinerates them. Perhaps even the methane that inflames my nostrils every evening, fog from feed lots swept west by gusts, adding another horizon between sun and cotton fields, poisons the verses lest they go anywhere else.
Before the contagion completely robs our spring, I plant Mexican marigolds. Also known as cempasúchil, commonly found on Día de los Muertos altars, I scaffold a bed from cedar planks and manure, unearth a shallow grave and wait for thunderstorms to bless the land. Relief never comes. Instead, my imagination creates space for a mystic nihilism, and I tend my garden as if it is church.
My father warns me that when I go outside beyond the garden, I should pray. He rarely expresses theology so I ask if something is wrong. People are dying without the chance to say good-bye, he says.
I read an article about the manufacturing of 100,000 body bags. The death toll in the United States is over 200,000. I wonder where they will bury all the bodies. I think of the words dolor and ya’aburnee and how deficient the English language is when it comes to suffering. Grief can’t cover all the holes we now must dig.
In the U.S., mass graves have been uncovered as developers unearth land for future projects. Buildings, parking lots, and man-made lakes have also been built over burial grounds. According to the Washington Post, the largest mass graveyard in the U.S. — Hart Island — has served as cemetery for many epidemics, including yellow fever, tuberculosis, the great flu of 1918, and now, unclaimed or unidentified COVID-19 bodies. Historically, the U.S. does not know how to bury the dead, much less mourn them. People claim we are experiencing the pandemic collectively — but economically, politically, and geographically, we are not. Look where we get buried. Look at who gets buried.
Some days when I remember, I water the marigolds, the peppermint, and the yerba buena outside in the garden. I’ve been reading Robin D.G. Kelley’s interview about the deconstruction of public culture. Thelonious Monk’s Straight, No Chaser album drifts in the background. Monk attended free concerts in Central Park as a child. On summer nights, Goldman’s sixty-piece orchestra played Wagner, Liszt, Tchaikovsky. There is no lockdown in Monk’s melody.
According to the news, Central Park doesn’t sing anymore; white tents serve as stages. Rasps synthesize under leaves of American Elm. I’ve heard birds there now beat along to the ambulance sirens.
By the time you read these words, you might believe me to be defeated. I am not. I just find it easy to be a recluse. Being in public spaces has always given me anxiety. I think about Sayak Valencia’s opening paragraph to Gore Capitalism: “The word Bienvenidos laughing in my face. The word Bienvenidos meaning every entrance is an exit.” Though Valencia described Tijuana, it might as well describe me and the life we now live, in a country that privatizes violence while publicizing democracy. We are given the option every four years to elect executioners.
Meanwhile, in distant skies, birds with metal wings hum under the rocket’s red glare, bombs bursting in air, as if to prove our flag is still there, that banner yet still waving, despite all the ruin.
Someone asked me where I want my body to rest in its final form. I say, carry my ashes to where the ocean is as an archive. The land and water will accept a memory, even when we forget. From space you can find addresses of the dead: Beirut. Hart Island. New Orleans. Juarez. Lake Lanier. Qom. Sugarland. Ferguson.
I promise my father that I will pray.