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The Covid Equation

Memory has always been my strong suit. You want the theme song to Diffโ€™rent Strokes, Facts of Life, or any other 80s TV show? No problem. The lyrics to โ€œThe End of The World as We Know itโ€ by REM? Which verse? The wide receiver depth chart for any of the NFLโ€™s 32 teams? Coming right up. Yet lately Iโ€™ve been having these little moments. Times when my prefrontal cortex is unable to scroll or double-click. Times when I canโ€™t remember shit. Letโ€™s call them glitches.

I keep thinking… maybe itโ€™s some sort of mid-forties brain recalibration thing, or because Iโ€™ve had a massive head injury, or the residual effect of squandered gray matter from years of drug use. Maybe. But the more I read up on the pandemic, the more I wonder if itโ€™s something else entirely.

I know Iโ€™ve had Covid. Half my dorm was waylaid back in October, the third time we were quarantined. A friend of mine ended up going to an outside hospital for a month and when he returned to the prison, he died within a week. The official line was that he recovered from the virus but couldnโ€™t survive the ensuing pneumonia. Thatโ€™s why it wasnโ€™t ruled a Covid death on the institutional scorecard. If that sounds sketchy to you, join the club.

No Covid tests were conducted on the other 70 men in my dorm. Just daily temp checks. Not that we wanted them. Quarantines are a massive inconvenience in prison. More punishment than precaution. No rec, no canteen, no movement (which translates to no hustling). Just a biohazard sticker on the door for fourteen days. They do nothing, solve nothing, protect no one. As long as guards are coming in everyday for shiftwork, the virus will circulate. No getting around it. Not in open bay dorms where thereโ€™s 12 inches between your feet and your neighborโ€™s head. Itโ€™s gotten to the point that no one reports symptoms. When you have a life sentence, global pandemics mean about as much as presidential elections.

But the way we knew something was up โ€” aside from feeling like hell โ€” was that no one could taste or smell anything. You know those cologne advertisements in menโ€™s magazines like Esquire and GQ? My friends and I would wave strips under each otherโ€™s noses. Nothing. Itโ€™s a strange experience to breathe deeply through the nostrils and not register a scintilla of scent. Especially in a prison dorm where pungent smells are abundant.

But even stranger are the memory lapses. At least in my experience. Neuroscientists are just now starting to understand the effects of Covid on the brain. I recently read an article by Dr. Sanjay Gupta about some of the devastating long-term and short-term neurological complications of the virus including delirium, depression, temporary brain dysfunction, headaches, brain inflammation, and meningitis. He cites a report in the journal Nature that details the symptoms of a woman in her fifties who saw lions and monkeys in her house and accused her husband of being an imposter.

I guess my forgetting the lyrics to โ€œCome On Eileenโ€ pales in comparison to zoological hallucinations, but itโ€™s still cause for alarm in my little corner of the multiverse. What if this is the beginning of a tumble into the abyss? I researched enough about dementia while writing Sticks & Stones to understand what a terrifying prospect it is.

Covid or no Covid, my defense against cognitive decline remains unchanged: exercise daily, meditate for ten minutes, learn new things, do plenty of crosswords, and write with my hair on fire. (Yeah, Iโ€™m bald. 5 books. Where do you think it went?)

As Leonard Pitts once so eloquently put it, โ€œWithout memories what are we? We are the equation after the blackboard has been wiped clean.โ€

Year of the Firefly: Chapter 1

Miranda had never seen a Gucci eye patch before. Funny how that was the focal point of her attention. The patch. Not the ginormous pile of cash on the table. Not the musclebound tattooed man who was counting it. Not the naked woman snuggling with the pitbull on the leather sofa. Not the oblivious little boy tapping furiously on the Xbox controller. All these storylines were riveting, but it was the designer patch that the monocle of her consciousness was fixed upon. She wondered if it was a fashion accessory or a medical device or both. The aspiring author and English Lit major in her needed to know.

Still tingly and warm from the blunt on the ride across the bridge, she followed with hooded eyes as its wearer rummaged through kitchen cabinets in search of a scale. He caught her staring and paused. The sculptured mustache and goatee that framed his mouth pulled back into a diamond- and platinum-encrusted scowl. โ€œYo Nick, you sure this bitch ainโ€™t troll?โ€

Uncertain which was more offensive, being called a bitch or a troll, she felt her face redden with indignation as she sputtered to assemble a lethal riposte . . . something Katherine from Taming of the Shrew might serve up in her icy Shakespearean tone. Nice eyepatch . . . are you wearing matching Gucci panties?

Two things stopped her: the small arsenal of urban warfare weapons stacked on the coffee table and Nickโ€™s firm hand on the small of her back.

โ€œIโ€™m positive,โ€ he said, in that deep, confident voice that made her forget her outrage, forget she was standing in a trap house, forget the world, forget herself.

โ€œWell she looks like troll.โ€ Eyepatch found his scale and set it on the counter. โ€œLike one of them redheaded CSI bitches. I donโ€™t trust no redheads . . .โ€

Nick removed his hand from her back and ran his fingers through his dark unruly hair. His palm left an impression, hot against her skin. A thermonuclear handprint. โ€œCome on, Gucci,โ€ he said. โ€œYou know I donโ€™t fuck with twelve.โ€

Miranda stifled a giggle. His name was Gucci? Was Gucci, the company, like, secretly sponsoring drug dealers or something? She thought of her sociology professor, Dr. Bonilla, and his fiery disquisitions on consumer culture and materialism. He would choke on his own mustache if he ever crossed paths with this walking designer brand billboard.

โ€œShe ainโ€™t gotta be twelve,โ€ said Gucci. โ€œShe could be an informant. How do you know she ainโ€™t wearing a wire?โ€

Nick glanced down at her. His eyes were dark chocolate caged in black lashes. A secret smile played at the corners of his mouth. โ€œBecause I watched her get dressed.โ€

His words seemed to hang in the air. She blushed, suddenly as exposed as the naked woman snoring on the couch. Gucci appraised her from over his scale. Fitting, because she felt like she was being weighed. His one eye moved up and down her body. Apparently the MeToo movement had not yet reached the criminal underworld. She wished Nick would put his arm around her.

โ€œDonโ€™t bring nobody else over here,โ€ Gucci muttered as he pulled apart the Ziploc and began heaping Boi onto the didgies with a silver spoon.

Boi and didgies.

The arrival of Nick Archiletta on the timeline of her life had brought a strange new lexicon of colloquialisms and street slang. Words that did not appear in the pages of her beloved Random House College Dictionary or even the online Urban Dictionary. Sometimes it was as if he was speaking an entirely different language.

Miranda loved words. She grew up doing New York Times crossword puzzles with her dad and was a self-proclaimed etymologist by the time she reached middle school. Her plan was to write a novel after the fall semester and midterms, maybe a gritty romance she could self-pub and market herself. The bad boy patois of Nickโ€™s urban ecosystem would make for snappy, realistic dialogue. This was perhaps the sexiest thing about him. True, he was lean and handsome with just the right number of tattoos. True, the danger was thrilling, the passion was electric, the money was fast, and the drugs were convenient. But take all that away and his vernacular alone was worth the price of admission. Especially to a word-nerd like herself.

The dope was the color of Gulf of Mexico sand, a growing anthill atop the matte black digital scale. Gucci added a little, then more, then grunted, shook his head, and sliced off the tip of the mountain, transforming it into a mesa. Satisfied, he spun the scale.

Miranda read the display. 28.7.

โ€œCan I put some cut on it?โ€ said Nick.

โ€œYou better.โ€ Gucci shook a Newport from his pack and fired it up. His teeth dazzled beyond the flame. โ€œYou know how we rock, bruh. This is that good Frank white shit. Pure as your bitch.โ€

She winced. He pronounced pure like purr. Calling her rude names was one thing. But lazy mispronunciations she could not tolerate. They circumvented her filter, triggering a response that was almost reflexive.

โ€œI believe the word youโ€™re looking for is pure. P-U-R-E. All you do is take the possessive your and stick a P in front of it. Pyour . . . Pure.โ€ She enunciated with the exaggerated patience of a kindergarten teacher. โ€œYou try it.โ€

He stared at her for a solid ten seconds. He even pursed his lips. Then he looked at Nick. โ€œWhat is this crazy-ass bitch jaw-jackinโ€™ about?โ€

Nick shrugged. โ€œShe takes off like that sometimes. I think itโ€™s a college thing . . . here.โ€ He reached in his jeans pocket, grabbed a roll of bills and tossed them across the kitchen.

Gucci caught the money, removed the rubber band and began to count.

โ€œEverything good?โ€ said Nick, when he reached the last hundred.

โ€œBetter than good.โ€ The one-eyed dope dealer looked up and smiled for the first time that day. โ€œEverythingโ€™s Gucci.โ€