Chapter 10 – Miles in the Time of Coronavirus
It had to have been more than five years back already when one of my oldest buddies from childhood went to the Cubs-Sox game here in Chicago and sent me a text of the discovery he’d made in the bathroom at Comiskey or US Cellular or Guaranteed Rape-Me-In-The-Ass Field or whatever stupid-ass corporate name the South Sider’s stadium has assumed these days. “Check this shit out,” was the preface to a photo he’d taken of an advertisement above one of the urinals. “The Sox fans here are sayin that, ‘We only put these things up because we knew you Cubs fans would be comin here with your bent-ass dicks.’” I took a closer look at the photo. Painted directly onto the brick wall had been the image of a beer bottle placed on the edge of a pool table with its neck bent like a banana. Above the bottle was a line in bold that read “Not all curves are created equal” and below the picture in a much smaller font it said, “If you have a curved erection, find out about Peyronie’s Disease at askaboutthecurve.com.”
In the moment, this ad reminded me of another one of our grade school buddies who we still have a running joke about twenty-somethin years after the fact. One day after school we were hangin out in another friend’s basement watching The Mummy with Brendan Fraser when this one particular guy who was really self-conscious about his penis called up the landline of this other friend’s house (this is, of course, before any of us had cell phones) and we put him on speakerphone. He was sobbing. And after a few seconds, he mustered the composure to ask us, “Why did you guys tell the girls I have a curly cue?” None of us in the room were guilty of telling the girls in our grade about the shape of his penis and I’m not sure how he arrived at the conclusion we had. Nevertheless, this accusation proved to be comedic gold. We couldn’t contain our laughter in spite of our friend suffering on the other end of the phone line. “Why did you tell the girls I have a curly cue?” is the text I sent back to my friend in response to the PSA he saw about Peyronie’s Disease at the Sox game.
When I returned to Chicago from the Middle East in March of 2020, in addition to the apocalyptic toilet paper shortage which I’d seen hundreds of memes about, everybody was talking about “flattening the curve.” It was on the evening news, it was in all the papers, it was as popular a phrase as “social distancing” and “the new normal.” Had I not known any better – and had wishful thinking played a huge role in my interpretation of the reality that surrounded me – we as humans would have been trying to flatten the curve of a worldwide bent boner pandemic instead of the rate of infection of some ultra-contagious respiratory virus that was gonna shut everything down and kill millions. All religions, all races, all sexualities, all genders – we’d all have united and taken to the streets in the fight against curly cues…and won. Unfortunately, however, reality is rarely a reflection of my twisted little fantasies. And the reality of the matter was that the citizens of Earth – except for maybe natural social distancers like those tribal folks on North Sentinel Island who a couple years ago put some arrows through that Jesus-loving missionary kid – were all in for a rough year ahead.
About two weeks before I came home from my trip, I’d gotten a text message from my sister saying she was over at our house visiting my mom one evening and Dad was out at the bar way later than normal. She said that she and my mom were getting pretty worried, so every now and then she’d look out the front curtains to see if his truck was back out there on the street where he parked it every evening. And during one of these times when she was looking out, she happened to see my dad pull up. He got out the truck with a pizza in hand. He’d already been walking rough from his fucked-up hip even after the surgery, but here she said – on top of his disability – he was so wasted he couldn’t even keep his balance. She said that on the walk between his truck and the house, he stumbled and fell face-first on top of the pizza he was carrying and then was just layin there. And like, although he was trying, he couldn’t get up on his own. So, my mom and sister – being the dutiful wife and daughter they are – ran out the front door to help him out. He was all scraped up and his pizza was smashed. He cussed my mom out, calling her all the usual filth, as she and my sister worked together to pick him off the ground and get him in the house. My sister said that the next morning she printed a news report from the death of one of her high school friends that was killed by a drunk driver back in the day and left it in the basement for my dad to read whenever he was done sleeping this one off.
When I was told all this via text, I was quite disgusted. I mean, my dad going to the bar and drinking every day was old news, but for the past five or so years he’d have his three to five beers or whatever and that was it – none of this fall-down, too-drunk-to-walk-but-I’ll-still-drive-anyway typa stuff. The news reopened a lot of old wounds. When I was a kid and we’d practically be begging him to stop driving while wasted, he’d always yell at my mom that, “I’m a better driver drunk than you are sober!” I’m so thankful we never had to live through the shame and humiliation of him having killed somebody after getting behind the wheel tanked. And so, with this cocktail of old shitty emotions stirred up inside me, two weeks after having heard this news, when I came home from my trip, I had no desire to even let my dad know I returned. I was so sickened, I couldn’t even face him. At least initially, I couldn’t.
So, I spent a week doing my own thing or whatever and, as always, my guilt started kicking in and I started thinking I should go down into the basement to at least say hi to Dad. So, one morning I waited until I’d heard him moving around down there and then crept down the stairs. He was standing on the other side of the couch on which he sleeps. He looked over and saw me and his eyes lit up. We greeted each other verbally as he hobbled around the couch and over to the base of the stairs where, surprisingly, he gave me a hug. He smiled and I noticed he’d lost another tooth during the two months I’d been gone. He told me he’d gotten a new truck while I was away. And that his hip felt good enough to go and get his miles every day in the woods. I told him I was glad and asked if he needed me to replenish the stock of any of his essentials – Wheaties? Milk? Bananas? Cookies? Anything? While I was down there, I also had a glance over on the coffee table and noticed that the steak knife he used to slice his daily half-a-banana up on top of his bowl of Wheaties every morning hadn’t been washed since before I left. The blade was caked with a couple months’ worth of brown-colored rotten banana shit on it. I picked it up and told him he really should wash that knife if he didn’t wanna get sick. He nodded and told me he would. And I think that was pretty much it for that first interaction before I went back upstairs. But with this, I again began ripping the jumble out the newspaper and bringing it down to him every morning and would see if he needed anything else and, when he was awake, I’d listen to whatever he wanted to talk about.
Within the first week or two back from my trip, all the bars and restaurants in Chicago were closed down because of the coronavirus. This meant that my dad could no longer go to the bar every evening to have his drinks. We were all worried that this would create a big problem and he’d start drinking at home again and would be up all night, every night drinking beer as he did in years past. Much to our surprise though, he took the closing of the bars very well and didn’t bring any booze into the house as we all feared. And as the booze began to leave his system, I felt like he was less anxious all the time and more present. He was less irritable and short-fused in dealing with my mom. I’m not sure if this is true, but my mom said he was even taking more of an interest in the lives of my siblings, shooting them texts a few times a week to see how they’ve been doing and ask what’s new. My brother told my dad that he bought a new place down in Logan Square and, although he never got to see the inside of it, Dad even made a special drive down there in his new truck to check out the exterior and let my brother know he’d seen it. Of course, none of this means that his thinking had suddenly become totally rational and his logic suddenly sound or anything like that, but I’d have to say that his overall demeanor was just in general more pleasant. For me personally, visiting him down in the basement at least once a day seemed like less of a chore because it didn’t stink like a hungover old man down there and I was more interested in actually listening to the things he had to say instead of just tolerating them, if that makes any sense. Like, I’d often ask him how last night was. Were you able to sleep? Did you get all the words figured out on your jumble? What’d you watch on TV? Things like that. And he’d tell me and he’d elaborate and he’d go off on tangents that sometimes had the potential to be pretty interesting.
In a previous chapter, I mentioned that at this point in his life, the only TV channel my dad ever watched was the MLB Network. That was true unless of course his beloved Cubbies were playing on another station like WGN or Fox Sports Network. And like, normally, the months of March and April are when all the spring training baseball games and the start of the regular season are televised. That wasn’t the case in the spring of 2020, as you probably know, because the MLB season had been postponed indefinitely due to the onset of Covid-19. Naturally, as it hadn’t during the winter months when there also wasn’t any live baseball being broadcast, this didn’t stop my dad from tuning in to the MLB Network practically every single minute he was at home and down in the basement. During this time, the programming on the MLB Network had consisted of either reruns of old, classic World Series games or movies having to do with baseball. That’s all. And every night they’d air the same four or five movies. It was always Field of Dreams, Moneyball, A League of the Own, Bull Durham or – as my dad would say because he could never remember the name – “that one baseball movie with Clint Eastwood and that Justin Timberland guy where Clint Eastwood’s daughter gives up her job being a lawyer to be a baseball scout.” And like, I shit you not, he watched each of these movies at least a dozen times apiece in the couple months right before he died. He’d get so fuckin sick of ‘em that he’d complain to me about it, but he couldn’t ever do anything different. He couldn’t ever change his routine and watch another channel.
So anyway, one of the times I went down to visit Dad in the basement, the conversation went like this…
“So, how was last night? You watch anything interesting?”
“Nah,” he sighed. “I got stuck watchin Bull Durham for the tenth time.”
“What?” I laughed. “Dude, we got like hundreds of DVDs there and a couple hundred other channels you could flip to. Nobody said you hafta keep watchin Bull Durham every time it comes on the TV.”
“Eh, that’s alright,” he said.
“Yeah, well, hope the MLB Network airs somethin different for you tonight.”
“Yeah, me too.”
“Anything else new?”
“Nah, nothin new.”
“Well actually,” he said. “I saw the Rival guy in the woods yesterday when I was getting my miles.”
“Just the one?” I asked. “Not all of the Rival guys together?”
“Yeah,” he said, “just the main guy. Because no one’s allowed to hang out there and have picnics anymore. You can only go on the trail. They got forest preserve police clearin everyone outta the fields. So, the Rival guys can’t sit out there at their bench with their shirts off, drinkin beer all day and throwin their cans all over the place like normal.”
“That’s too bad,” I said. “That’s their favorite spot.”
“Yeah, I know,” he said. “But the rule doesn’t make sense because lately the trail has been packed. And people havin small picnics out in the middle of a field like that aren’t comin anywhere near as close to one another as all the people on the trail are every day where you got a buncha strangers who may have the virus all walkin past each other. So, I dunno. I think it’s kinda fuckin stupid.”
“Hmm, yeah. Good point,” I said. “But if the Rival guy wasn’t out in his normal spot sittin there gettin drunk, where’d you see him?”
“On the trail,” Dad said. “He was riding a bike.”
“What? Really? The Rival guy on a bike? That’s seems so uncharacteristic of him.”
“Yeah, he was riding a bike. And he was goin in the opposite direction of me. And he slowed down when he saw me and stuck his hand out for a high five. As he was passing, he said in his raspy voice, ‘Gotta keep movin, Dan!’”
“Dude, what? A high five? You gave the Rival guy a high five?”
“Well, yeah,” he said.
“Man, it’s fuckin covid out there. You’re not supposed to be touchin other people’s hands and shit.”
“I know, but I couldn’t leave him hangin.”
“Yes, you could’ve. You could’ve left him hangin. I’m worried about you, man. I don’t wanchu gettin sick.”
“Nah,” he said. “I’ll be alright.”
A few weeks after that, during another one of my regular visits to the basement, Dad told me another story. It was one of the last stories he ever told me about something that happened in the woods during one of his walks, but also happens to be one of my favorites.
“They don’t allow cars to go in the woods anymore,” he said.
“Whattaya mean?” I asked.
“They got the entrances to the parking lots at Tonty and Harts Road chained off. Nobody can drive in there.”
“Hmm,” I said. “But you can still walk in the woods?”
“So keeping cars out is like their way of deterring big groups of people from entering err…”
“I guess so,” my dad said.
“I see. So where’ve you been parkin then?”
“I just park on the street over on Tonty and cross Caldwell and start walkin from there.”
“Oh shit,” I said. “That’s kinda dangerous. People fly on Caldwell over there. And it’s right by the bend too so you can’t really see if there’re any cars comin at ya south from Touhy.”
“Yeah, I know. I run across the street so I don’t get fuckin hit.”
“Well, fuck man,” I said. “Be careful over there.”
“Yeah, I’ll be alright,” he said. “But since it’s closed off, they got all these forest preserve cops there drivin around the parking lot all the time breakin up picnics and yellin at everyone not to walk close to each other on the trail. I don’t like those fuckin cops. They’re kinda jagoffs.”
“Yeah,” I said, “they sound like it.”
“Yeah, they are. Oh!” he laughed, “I gotta tell you this.”
“What?” I asked.
“Yesterday when I was getting my miles, this guy came into the woods on a dirt bike and…”
“How’d he get in if all the lots are chained off?” I asked.
“I dunno,” he said, “the guy just musta went around ‘em I guess.”
“Ah okay. That makes sense. Sorry for interrupting. Go ahead.”
“Yeah, okay. So, the guy’s riding in the parking lot and pulls up right alongside one of those forest preserve cops that was just sittin there parked and the guy on the bike gives a little bye-bye wave to the cop. He revs up the motor and takes off. And the cop throws the car in drive, punches the gas and starts goin after the guy.”
“There was a high speed…you saw a high speed pursuit in the woods yesterday?!”
“And you were standin right there?!”
“Oh man,” I said. “That’s pretty cool. Did the guy get away?”
“I would hafta think so,” he said. “The guy on the bike hopped up over the curb and went riding away across the field. The cop tried to do the same but his car didn’t do too well goin over the curb and after that he didn’t stand a chance catchin up with the guy in the field. Well, he tried but the guy on the bike left him in the dust.”
“That’s insane. Sounds like fuckin Steve McQueen at the end of The Great Escape. But I can’t believe the cop would even go after the guy and risk the lives of people out there walkin like that over somethin so stupid. I mean, what the guy did wasn’t even that serious of an offense, ya know?”
“No, but it was so cool though, seein that guy tease the cop with a little wave like that and then takin off.”
“Guy sounds like the man,” I said. “But, you think that forest preserve cop could’ve radioed the Chicago and Niles police to look out for this guy on a dirt bike as he emerged from the woods? Do they work together like that?”
“I have no idea,” he said. “But then I keep walkin and this other guy I sometimes see out there was walkin towards me on the path and he says, ‘Hey Dan. Did ya see that guy on the bike?! What an idiot!’ ‘Yeah,’ I said. Ya know…outwardly agreeing with the guy. But then in my own head, as I was walkin away, I was sayin to myself, ‘An idiot? I dunno about that. I actually thought that guy was pretty cool.’”