Are there no good white people? Or is it just the pandemic that’s causing all the white people frenzy? Silver Lillie-Blanton asked herself after spending the last 15 minutes scrolling through Twitter. At least there are white people’s dogs.
She stared at Fiona, laying on the sofa in the living room of their duplex. It was the middle of the afternoon on a Tuesday. Silver looked at her dog for the kind of wisdom only a Shinba Inu can provide. Fiona is now judging me. Like a wise Zen master. Am I really comparing myself to a student and my dog to my teacher? Yes. I should take Fiona out for a walk.
Silver leashed Fiona. She had named the dog after a friend of her mother’s, the singer Fiona Apple. She and Fiona shared a spacious apartment in the Logan Circle neighborhood of the nation’s capital. Her critically and commercially successful artist parents had purchased it for her when she took the job with the Washington Post and moved to the District of Columbia after graduating from college.
“Let’s go to the dog park on New Hampshire Avenue, OK?” she asked Fiona. “Let’s see if you can make any new friends today because I sure won’t.”
Silver liked to take Fiona for walks to the dog park and listen to podcasts. Per the Metropolitan Police Department citizen’s advisory issued last month for traveling outside the home, she had mapped out 20 different routes to and from the dog park, numbered them, and posted them on her refrigerator. She mixed them up; today she and Fiona would be taking Route #9. They left the apartment at a different time each day. All the routes Silver had mapped passed by one of the new police substations. So far, these walks had been uneventful, but she noticed that everyone now made eye contact from behind their masks and hazmat suits. It was as if there were some clue to survival hidden in the irises of passersby.
Route #9 could be described by a realtor in former times as “quiet, residential chic.” Not much buying in the city these days, not after what happened on The Fourth of July. They passed the 15th Street Presbyterian Church, which she once described to Louis as “not my kind of Presbyterian Church, too Calvinist.” A few minutes later, they passed the Universalist National Memorial Church on 16th Street, which she told Louis (in the same conversation) was “not my kind of Universalism, too kabbalist.” Neither church had held a service in nearly five months. Louis was a law student she met last summer, before the pandemic. She still described him to people as “my friend Louis.”
On Facebook, Silver had 1,569 friends. By last count, 1,432 were still living. In real life, she counted 36 people she would call friends; three had passed away. All of the people in this grouping had different names except Daphne Zimbalist, whom she called Daffy, and Daphne Muir, whom she called Daphne. Her tight circle was limited to 12 people, all of whom were still alive. Daffy was in this last group, but not Daphne. Louis existed in the limbo between the group of 12 and the group of 36.
She was listening serenely to Malcolm Gladwell on his podcast talk about his favorite subject, Elvis Presley, when her sister Olympia called. Silver loved her sister, whom she called Oly. Their mother named her daughters after the typewriters she had used as a young writer: Olympia and Silver Reed. Olympia had been sharing an apartment with her boyfriend Huey, about four miles away in Tenleytown, near American University. They were both teachers at Sidwell Friends. Olympia and Huey were teaching remotely from what they called “the Lillie-Blanton Fortress” a family retreat in the Poconos. Olympia and Huey were stressed out over trying to connect with their students, most of whom had decamped across the country like them. The reliability of the wi-fi and Zoom were paramount to their endeavors.
Olympia taught English. Her students read and wrote papers, but every week, they staged plays on based on screenplays the students wrote. Costumes were encouraged and sometimes exceeded the boundaries of taste. Huey, who was named after Huey Newton by his black father over the objections of his white mother, taught math. He tutored his students, offering instruction for students individually, unless there were siblings in the same house. All their students were still located in the continental United States, so time zone differences were manageable. Like a lot of other teachers, they also offered non-academic experiences to students. Olympia also offered online yoga classes twice a week and had managed to put together a small band that performed Beatles and Beyoncé interpretations, recorded for YouTube. Huey taught tai chi and held meditation workshops. He also played Fortnite, but only with his advanced math students.
“Did you get your new stimulus check?” Olympia asked.
“It landed in my bank account yesterday,” Silver responded. “Direct deposit. At least that’s still working, even if they shut down the ATM’s because no one’s accepting cash anymore.”
“Except for the drug dealers,” Olympia stated. “I heard there’s a black market for cash. What are you going to do with your latest windfall?”
“Have you a suggestion?”
“Hell ya!” Olympia shouted. “Big-ass lava lamp for your crib.”
“Well, I will give you negative points for creativity, since that’s what you suggested that last two times the stimulus hit my bank,” Silver said. “I get the same litany of suggestions with every round of stimulus. Mom emailed me yesterday that I should put it into an IRA. Dad thinks I should donate it to a local food bank. Louis thinks I should spend it on takeout. My boss suggested to his staff that they spend it on subscriptions to online journals to support the industry. My friend Shoshanna told me to buy one of those Fenty hazmat suit that Rihanna designed. My friend Drew told me to buy stuff for Fiona. And my soon-to-be-former friend Irving told me to buy bitcoin.”
“So little money, so many options,” Olympia said. “I love America! Unemployment at 30 percent and the Dow Jones at 32,000! And I still can’t believe we still have jobs.”
“We both work for rich white people who will spend any amount of money to avoid the fate of the lumpenproletariat.”
“We are ‘essential vassals of the over-educated technocracy,’” Olympia said. “Huey and I discussed buying freeze-dried food, some Kevlar body armor, and a Glock. JK. We already have a Glock. JK. No way we’d have a Glock near dad. He’d borrow it for some kind of Marina Abramovic kind of performance art piece. Something would go haywire, and we’d have to bury him at the Fortress.”
“How is dad, Oly? And mom, for that matter?”
“Some things never change, like mom and dad,” Olympia answered. “They get up in the morning, drink coffee, disappear into their spaces and their ideas. Since they resumed shooting TV shows and movies in Iceland, she is in high demand. I am vaguely aware that dad has given up painting. He’s working with mom, now.”
“I remember him telling us that ‘creative talent is creative talent,’” Silver said. “‘Words are images and images are words.’”
“That’s right! So, they emerge from their creative cocoon for dinner and the nightly interrogation commences. The pain and suffering varies, depending on the answers we provide. They nearly waterboarded Huey last night. JK. And then we play parlor games in the evening, just like when we were kids. Mad Libs. Charades. Cards Against Humanity. We have even learned how to play bridge.
“I can only imagine how competitive Huey and Hopper are at bridge,” Silver laughed.
“They almost came to blows last night. Not JK,” Olympia said. “And after the games, we all huddle in the corner by the fireplace, waiting for the coronavirus to get us like the boogeyman. It’s like we’re living in the first act of a Wes Craven movie. Mom and dad? They’re a riot.”
“Nice for you.”
“Yeah, if it weren’t for the reality of the ‘new abnormal’ we call life. It’s hard not living in a community of flesh-and-blood people. We’re not used to seeing people anymore, except on a screen. When the second wave hit in July and the death toll passed half a million, we all began to treat anyone we encountered at the grocery store in town as a zombies out to kill us. Also, if you moved here, you would have to deal with the utter weirdness of living under the same roof as Hopper and Ingrid. I think they’re fucking again and it’s freaking their kids out.”
Their older brother Hopper, who was named by their father after the painter Edward Hopper, was a rising sociologist at the University of Chicago. At age 32, he was a tenured member of the faculty. His first book, a study of 45 children of artistic parents, had been published three years earlier and became a bestseller, translated into 15 languages, and optioned by Reese Witherspoon’s production company for a film Greta Gerwig had agreed to direct. Their mother was hired as a consultant to the film.
“Seriously, how is the whole Ingrid situation?” Silver asked.
Ingrid was Hopper’s ex-wife and the mother of their two sons, Max and Alexis (named after noted sociologists). Ingrid had left her boyfriend in Chicago to be with Max and Alexis. She was a pediatrician, so everyone in the Lillie-Blanton Fortress was pleased to have a doctor among them. Also, Silver liked Ingrid better than her brother. Everyone in the family liked Ingrid better than Hopper.
“I don’t know if it’s Ingrid or the situation, but Hopper is being less of an asshole,” Olympia replied. “He’s actually a good father. A little intense, but good. And he has been helping Huey and me with our students. He knows applied statistics, which provides a different perspective for the math students, and he is remarkably creative with my students. He performs in our plays. And Ingrid provides all our students with health advice. Max and Alexis are confused by their parents being nice to each other, but it’s a net positive. You’d like it if you came.”
“I can’t explain it, but I’m not coming,” Silver said. “I love hearing your voice, Oly.”
“I love hearing your voice, Silver. Stay safe.”
“Stop saying that. No one says it anymore. It’s too morbid.”
Fiona started to get excited as they closed in on the dog park. Silver counted five owners outside the fence, keeping their distance from each other. Two of them wore homemade hazmat suits. The others wore goggles and N-95 masks under simple masks, like Silver. Two of them wore surgical gloves, but the CDC had only advised their use in crowded situations. Which never happened in public anymore after the Fourth of July debacle. If the Ted Nugent people still gathered in groups, they did it in secret. Silver guided Fiona through the gate of the dog park and watched her run untethered. In former times, the other owners congregated and talked about their dogs. Today, they were either silently watching their dogs or their screens. Everything seemed to be blanketed in a hushed silence, except for the half dozen dogs and the constant, distant wail of sirens.
Silver’s phone started playing “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen. Silver’s mother was trying to reach her.
“We’re worried about you,” her mother said.
Ever since the national emergency had been declared in March, Silver’s mother increased the frequency of her phone calls, usually made after she had gotten off the phone with a producer or director, and every phone call began with the words “we’re worried about you.”
“Mom, I’m evidence that I’m not exactly being nonchalant about COVID,” Silver responded. “And aren’t you supposed to worrying about your writing and Hopper’s movie?”
“Your father and I would feel a lot better about the situation if you would finally come to your senses and join the rest of your family in the Poconos,” she said. “You know we have plenty of room, and you can still do whatever it is that ‘engagement editors’ for newspapers do. As the election gets closer, Washington is becoming a more dangerous city. I read a story about it yesterday in, what’s it called, the Washington Post. Your employer.”
The story Silver’s mother had read discussed new security measures put into place in a joint venture between the White House and the mayor’s office following several outbreaks of violence involving “patriot groups and antifa movements inspired by the upcoming elections and an increasing resentment of government institutions from both the right and the left.” Silver thought it was mostly young white men of different beliefs with similar amounts of excessive testosterone and levels of boredom.
Silver’s stuck to a disciplined radius of travel within her neighborhood. The “outbreaks of violence,” which did not rise to the level of a riot in Silver’s opinion, took place several Metro stops away, though the Metro no longer ran. Rather than the outside world encroaching on her, she felt as though it was her own world was closing in on her, getting smaller and smaller. Although she was not employed a reporter, the Post was encouraging staff to stay in or close to Washington. Everyone at the Post had been deputized as “eyes and ears in the nation’s capital at this critical period in the life of our government and the country,” according to a memo from the owner Jeff Bezos, which was circulated to all employees two days after the events in July that had shocked the nation.
Silver would not admit it to Olympia, but she was torn over her parents’ offer. Hopper’s intensity and her parents’ eccentricities aside, they were a tight-knit family. She and her siblings had grown up close together in a cramped three-bedroom apartment in Westbeth, the artists’ colony in the Meatpacking District. That apartment was still her parents’ primary residence, and all their children loved staying with them when they visited New York. When her mother started to make serious money as a writer, they had purchased the Lillie-Blanton Fortress, a six-bedroom house on 10 acres near the Delaware Water Gap. Silver had thought of the house as the family’s own Disneyland, not a fortress protecting them from the city.
“But what about Louis?” Silver asked her mother, disingenuously. “And, you know, there is the Post’s edict that we stay,” she mentioned, somewhat less disingenuously.
Silver was 26 years old. Her mother wanted her daughter in a serious relationship. “You don’t have to get married. You could be like your sister and Huey,” she would say, “but the world is not a friendly place for attractive, unattached women like you and Olympia.”
Silver would not admit it, but her mother had a point. She was tall, slim, athletic. Outgoing and nerdy. In former times, men told her she had a great laugh. Lots of men. All ages. All colors. All body types. Like they think they possess the right of telling me that I have a great laugh at any time and any place of their choosing. But her mother would add, “As long as you are unaccompanied by a man.”
Ever since she left her Oregon and her college boyfriend Winston to move to Washington, she had dated. She liked the company of men, but she had not been prepared for Washington, DC men: the usual cast of Congressional staffers and NGO do-gooders. She had dated a very nice guy from Colombia who worked as a chef for a few months until she found out that he was married with two kids. The nerds didn’t like music. The musicians could not appreciate tech. She missed the punk rockers she grew up with in New York and the lost-boy artists who surrounded her in Oregon. “I’m still not used to the men in Washington,” she had told Olympia. “Their idea of adventurous is to switch to a darker shade of gray.”
Last summer, her mother had signed her up for Date Lab and the editor ignored that she was a colleague, choosing to focus on Silver being the daughter of semi-famous parents. On a whim and with the promise of free dinner, she went on the date with Louis. He was from New Orleans. He carried a gentlemanly air, and at first blush, she thought he might be gay. On their first date, he wore a seersucker suit with a bowtie. He played piano in a jazz band. When he finished law school, he wanted to return to New Orleans and be a judge. His hero was the late Byron “Whizzer” White, who almost won the Heisman Trophy in college, was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1938, played professional football for the Detroit Lions, and later served more than 20 years as a U.S. Supreme Court justice. Silver had Googled him after the date.
“Why don’t you bring Louis with you?” her mother asked.
“It would be super awkward, mom,” Silver answered. “He has been making noises about moving in with me, but it’s not necessarily because he wants to live with me. It’s mostly to get away from his roommates, who are driving him crazy. We’re really not boyfriend and girlfriend. I’m not ready for steady Louis.”
“You’ve been dating for almost a year!”
“Your generation’s definition of dating is a lot different from mine, mom,” Silver said. “We’re really not that close. We haven’t even been in the same room for six months. We date on Zoom. It’s not even a date. And he’s not a good Zoom date. He plays keyboard and sings Harry Connick songs to me, and he’s not a good singer. He tells dad jokes. And he talks a lot about Whizzer White, beignets, the shame of the Ninth Ward, and the suspension of habeas corpus. He talks a lot. Like, more than you.”
Silver would not admit it to her mother, but as much as she loved her family, she also liked the separation from her family. She had left the East Coast to attend Reed College because Steve Jobs was its most famous dropout, because her middle name was Reed, and because she needed to get out of their family apartment.
“Whoever invented opposite coasts was a genius,” she told friends at Reed. “No more accidentally sharing underwear with both my mother and sister because my mother bought all our underwear in bulk. No more unshowered man smell. No more interrogations about my love life, my academic progress, my health and well-being, my friends, my thoughts, my fears, and my hopes. Finally, a moment of solitude and quiet.”
Silver’s father was a painter who had achieved moderate success after Larry Gagosian began representing him as a favor to Julian Schnabel. He painted portraits of people eating cereal at their kitchen table with celebrities like Ryan Reynolds or Macaulay Culkin. Culkin had commissioned a painting of him eating cereal with Reynolds and Ryan Gosling for $100,000. However, the real money came from Silver’s mother, who still considered herself a novelist even though she had not written a novel in 10 years. Her mother was in great demand as a screenwriter and movie script doctor. Until the pandemic, Silver’s mother commuted between New York and Hollywood. In the Poconos, with her mother and father working together, Silver would be left alone with her siblings, nephews, and Ingrid.
Silver would also not admit it to her parents, but she was wrestling with a dilemma: should she assert herself in independent adulthood or circle the wagon with her parents and siblings? Her parents had done much for her, including buying her the duplex, which had become her fortress in the midst of the pandemic, but she also wanted to do something by herself. She wanted that independence. She still talked to Fiona Apple about it on late-night Zoom calls. They spoke to each other in total darkness; neither could actually see the other. She nicknamed her mother’s friend “Mother Apple.”
“I don’t want to give advice to Silver Lille-Blanton or any young woman about what to do with these questions,” Fiona Apple told her one of these night. “You are going to make mistakes and, hopefully, learn from them. Just make sure they’re your mistakes, not your parents’ mistakes.”
“Thank you, Mother Apple,” Silver replied.
“I hate when you call me that!” her friend laughed.
“Well, do you like Louis?” her mother asked. “Do you think he has potential for you?”
“I don’t know, mom,” Silver answered.
“That’s all you need to know,” her mother said.
Silver paused. “Mom, he’s my friend and mostly I worry about him,” she said.
“He still lives in that dark apartment in Foggy Bottom with those two other law students I told you about, Duane and Jeremiah. They’re all from the South. New Orleans, Memphis, Jacksonville. I don’t think they respect the CDC guidelines. Even Louis. They’re the kind of bros who were there on the Fourth of July and walked away without any problems. They are skating through law school and life. Louis thinks that things will always work out for him. Louis has the privilege of being an optimist. The white privilege.”
“In that case, you and your dog could move in with us, and, if he’s your friend and you care about him at all, you could let Louis move into your apartment.”
“Mom, he’s messy.”
“Messier than you?”
“Touché,” Silver replied. The last time Silver was messy was when she was 16 years old; however, sometimes parents’ memories of their children get stuck in time.
“Well, dear, you know the offer is on the table,” her mother said. “All you have to do is drive up and self-quarantine in solitary confinement for a couple of weeks.”
Solitary confinement. After they purchased the Lillie-Blanton Fortress, her parents had built a guest house to accommodate guests at the large literary/artist parties that her parents were expected to host once they had become wealthy. To the family, it resembled the kind of shack or hothouse to which prisoners were sentenced for bad behavior. Not even a pool house. Out there on the property, all by itself. Silver had met Fiona Apple at one of her parents’ parties. Fiona Apple had stayed in solitary confinement.
Silver had programmed Route #9 into her phone’s GPS. She called out to Fiona, who was starting to look bored after a good run, and the two of them began the return journey along 17th Street. They passed a man – white, thirties, beard, a little squishy – wearing Doc Martens, jeans, and an old Ted Nugent tour t-shirt from the 1970’s. He was wearing no PPE, violating a strict edict passed down from the mayor in July. He had blood in his eyes. Silver had not personally seen any men like him in the past month, but she had seen the videos. She knew what was going to happen. The man had to know what was going to happen next.
Silver and Fiona discreetly began to follow him. She recalled how, in mid-July, a man like the one she was now following walked into re-opened restaurant somewhere on the New Jersey shore. No mask, Ted Nugent t-shirt, sporting attitude. A customer named Megan called 911. However, before the police arrived, the man had been beaten to death by the diners and the restaurant staff. The phenomenon of “Meganing” or “to Megan” was born.
Silver, now a deputized reporter, began filming the man. She was able to capture an elderly woman and one of the dog owners from the dog park on their phones, agitated and presumably calling the police. Within a minute, two police vehicles arrived. The two officers confronted the man. A minute later, two more police vehicles arrived. The man began to physically resist the police officers. The four officers proceeded to beat the man. He fell to the ground. They continued their assault with nightsticks and kicks. The man lay motionless, but they continued their assault. One of the officers pulled out his sidearm and emptied a round into the man’s head. An ambulance arrived on the scene. Shortly thereafter, the coroner arrived. The body was removed. A police maintenance crew arrived and cleaned the blood off the sidewalk.
Twenty minutes after first spotting the man, no evidence of him, the confrontation, or the killing existed – except on Silver’s phone and, five minutes later, on the Washington Post’s cloud, where it joined 174 similar videos. In former times, they called these killings Suicide by Cop. Now they called it Death by Nugent. People – 95 percent white men under the age of 40 – who for one reason or another could not or would not take the self-quarantine anymore bought old Ted Nugent t-shirts as a statement and walked out of their homes without PPE, inviting the police to execute them. Along with the suspension of habeas corpus, local, state, and federal police were instructed to enforce the PPE Act of 2020 – passed into law in August after the U.S. Senate overrode President Voldemort’s veto — and terminate violations of the law with extreme prejudice. Challenges to the law were working their way to the Supreme Court, but no injunction had been issued. Silver’s video showed that no one on the street ran to the defense of the man; in fact, most people just ignored the police action.
Public outrage in some sectors over Death by Nugent resulted in Amazon suspending sales and shipment Ted Nugent t-shirts. President Voldemort had mocked the decision; he tweeted a photoshopped image of him wearing a Ted Nugent t-shirt. No one had heard from Ted Nugent since the Fourth of July.
As she neared her apartment, Silver thought about a passage from Frank O’Hara’s poem, “Meditations in an Emergency.” It was a poem that she read out loud to herself every night as a form of grace before she ate her solitary dinner:
However, I have never clogged myself with the praises of pastoral life, nor with nostalgia for an innocent past of perverted acts in pastures. No. One need never leave the confines of New York to get all the greenery one wishes—I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life.
She was quite aware that the world she had grown up in had evolved, then violently changed. There was no getting around the changes. They were bad, bad changes. All the lessons she had been taught about the good in the world and the generosity of people who looked like her were being contradicted every day by the images flashing in front of her, the sounds that haunted her, and the smells that nauseated her each and every day.
Silver had been offered pastoral respite in the Lille-Blanton Fortress, where she would be embraced by her family, insulated from the more horrifying changes, and bathed in the protection of money. She would not be fired if she retreated from the city.
If Silver could admit it to herself, which she was not quite ready to do, she was thrilled to be in the vortex of the changes. She loved the adrenaline rush of being alive in the age of death. Her skin tingled with every expression of worry and concern thrown her way by relatives and friends. She was exhilarated by the first few moments of consciousness every morning. If we survive, my mother and I will write a memoir of our pandemic experience.
Silver and Fiona arrived back at the duplex. Silver removed her masks and goggles, and took a shower, part of her daily protocol after taking Fiona to the dog park. She dried herself off, got into her Spice Girls pajamas, and filed a report with her employer on what she had observed in the 90 minutes she had been out of her home. The editors had told staff that these reports helped them get a better sense of what was going on in the streets of Washington.
Silver had already admitted to herself that she would do nothing with the stimulus money that had been deposited into her bank account. She had done nothing with the first two payments as well. Nothing. To spend the money, she had concluded, would be to believe in the future. To believe in the future would mean that Louis would be her boyfriend. To believe in the future, she and Louis would be at the Lillie-Blanton Fortress making dinner for her family. To believe in the future, she would have tried to help the man in the Ted Nugent t-shirt. She believed in each and every day she survived. She could not believe in the future. Not yet.
She planned a dinner of the lasagna that she had made three days earlier from an Ina Garten recipe and frozen in portions, which she would serve with garlic bread, and an arugula salad with walnuts and Greek dressing. For dessert, she would have Rocky Road ice cream. She had already decided to watch “Silver Linings Playbook” on Netflix that evening. After the movie, she would work for another hour, then read before going to bed. She was reading “Little Fires Everywhere” by Celeste Ng.
She ached inside and tried to remember what it was like to wake up in the morning next to a man and prayed for white people to stop. Just stop.