Ulysses: Hopper Hides from His Mistakes Behind a Pug

Table of Contents here.

June 16, 2022 — A full month before the national emergency was declared in early 2020 over the spread of a novel coronavirus, Hopper’s parents had decamped from Manhattan to their vacation-home-cum-pandemic-retreat, resting on 10 acres in the Poconos near the Delaware Water Gap. Two days after President Voldemort declared the emergency Hopper had packed for a long trip and drove his hybrid Rav4 from Chicago to join his family at what Olympia and Silver had nicknamed the Tilley-Blandin Fortress. Hopper was met not only by his parents, Olympia and her boyfriend Huey, but also, much to his delight, his two sons, Alexis and Max, and much to his shock and growing trepidation, his ex-wife Ingrid.

“You have to admit there are advantages to having a doctor in the house during a pandemic,” his mother had said by way of explaining Ingrid’s presence. “Too bad Silver decided to stay by herself in Washington DC. It’s not safe for a single, attractive woman these days.”

“Silver can handle herself,” Hopper had responded reflexively. It was a phrase he believed, and he had uttered in his mother’s presence hundreds of times since Silver’s 13th birthday. She had set his mind racing, coming to grips with all the disasters that could be visited upon him by Ingrid’s sudden reintroduction into his family.

Hopper’s mother had immediately dubbed their assembled family “the Almighty Eight.”

*****

The coronavirus that plagued the country had not been eradicated, allowing it to further mutate. In the last month alone, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identified two new strains of the coronavirus transmitted from Afghanistan and Iraq. Nearly 25,000 mostly unvaccinated Americans continued to be infected each week.

The National Institutes of Health estimated that 65 percent of adult Americans and 55 percent of children had received a full dose of vaccine and subsequent booster shots, not meeting the epidemiological threshold for herd immunity that would starve the virus of new hosts. The death rate hovered between 1,500-2,000 each week, which felt luxurious compared to much of the rest of the world. The televised and streaming industrial-political-media class had declared the virus “contained” in the United States and concluded that it was a normal and acceptable public health goal that the virus be managed rather than eradicated.

As more Americans were vaccinated, Hopper remained among a distinct minority of Americans – estimated by a Pew Research Center survey as 10 percent — who continued to wear any kind of face covering in public, even though the CDC had revised its guidance and now recommended that everyone return to wearing masks outdoors in places where they would come into contact with others.

“Though this state of affairs is suboptimal,” Dr. Anthony Fauci proclaimed on the Rachel Maddow Show, “unless more people are vaccinated, it appears that COVID-19 will be residing among us for the foreseeable future.”

Hopper and everyone he personally knew had diligently been vaccinated and received the booster shots Dr. Fauci recommended. In his mind, it was what normal people did.

*****

Hopper felt safe walking around in public with a face covering. He liked the anonymity he assumed by covering half of his face. He felt immune from being accosted by the harbingers of past mistakes who could not recognize him behind his mask. He routinely wore sunglasses and a Kansas City Royals baseball cap (he had never visited Kansas City) along with a collection of face coverings featuring a pug. He famously did not like pugs. Years earlier, while being interviewed by Ellen DeGeneres on her eponymous television show about his first book, she asked whether he was a dog person or a cat person. In a rambling response to this unexpected question, he stumbled upon these two sentences: “I cannot stand pugs. They give me the creeps.” He thought he was being funny; however, a chorus of boos from the audience, egged on by Ellen, rained down on him. In the days following the show’s broadcast, the internet had been unforgiving.

As he approached Hudson Street, a passing shadowy figure waved at him and Hopper returned the gesture. Half a block later, he remembered that the man’s name was Stephen. Stephen was a poet who had received a MacArthur Foundation genius grant for his work and often attended parties at the Tilley-Blandin apartment in Westbeth. Hopper recalled that his mother told him that Stephen had gone to work for Google after the grant money had run out, but that he still wrote and attended poetry slams. Hopper then remembered hearing that Stephen was dead, stabbed to death on a subway platform on the Upper West Side. The attacker was never found. Hopper stopped. Was Stephen alive or was that a doppelganger for a dead poet? he wondered.

Hopper’s reverie was interrupted when his phone buzzed with a text message from Olympia. Olympia had joined their mother in Los Angeles, living together in what they dubbed the Tilley-Blandin Compound, even though, as Hopper pointed out, they were merely renting a three-bedroom, two-bathroom, single-family dwelling on a third of an acre that did not have a pool.

Olympia’s text announced that their “Mother has stopped coloring her hair. It’s now just a mess of gray streaks. I like it in a Paulina Porizkova kind of way.”

“By letting herself go gray,” Hopper responded, “our mother has taken an important step towards understanding that we all die.”

“Maybe,” Olympia texted back, “but Charlize Theron is going gray, too. Off screen. Just saying.”

Hopper hated when his sisters brought up the subject of Charlize Theron. It still felt raw.

“Thank you for everything,” he wrote. “Call me tomorrow after your movie party.”

Hopper decided to cross Hudson Street and stop by the park in Abingdon Square to watch the Village Madonnas and assorted nannies playing with the children under their care. His mother used to bring Hopper and his sisters to this park along with a portable typewriter. His mother was a relentless machine; her friends called her “the Shark” because she never relaxed, never stopped hunting. He could not remember any point in his childhood when she was not focused on writing her next best-selling novel or some project or, as she confessed, “anything to keep me distracted from the dread that I will bore myself to death.” When he was a boy, Hopper did not know these things about his mother. All he remembered was playing with his sisters in the park while his mother sat on a nearby bench and tapped away on a typewriter in her lap. Even then, he was in charge of his sisters. That was his normal childhood.

Hopper missed his own children. When they stayed with him, it felt like all the outside pressures disappeared. He could be in the moment because they needed him to be in the moment. “They could die if you allow yourself to be distracted,” Ingrid said the first time she brought Max and Alexis to his apartment for a weekend with their father. “I could easily spend five to 10 minutes just listing for you all the ways our sons could die from your inattention.” His parents, Olympia, Silver, Ingrid, his editor Lola, his students, his department chair, his dean, the president of the University of Chicago…everyone who could want something from him melted away in the presence of his children. Though he did not have a proclivity for dogs or cats, he loved children.

Hopper arrived at the park and started counting the women standing and sitting attentively while children played no more than five strides away. Ten adults, he concluded, and 15 children. None of them were wearing masks. Hopper recognized four of the women; they had attended Stuyvesant High School with him. Dilly, Katey, Boody, and Maggy.

Years earlier, when he was home for Christmas while at college, Hopper had drunkenly made out with Katey in the hallway outside one of his parents’ parties. The next morning, while still hung over, he called Katey to apologize for any boorish or lecherous behavior he may have exhibited. “Oh, Hopper,” she replied. “You were a perfect gentleman. All lips, a little bit of tongue, no hands. Nothing even my strict, Korean parents would find objectionable. I can’t imagine you ever getting a girl to do something she didn’t want.” Hopper remembered being both relieved and insulted. On the wings of her parents’ discipline and standards, Katey had gone to Harvard (a different class than Ingrid) and now was a sociologist teaching undergraduates at NYU. She and Hopper sometimes crossed paths at academic conferences. Katey’s first book was scheduled to be published and she had asked Hopper to give her a blurb. He had not yet read the book, and seeing Katey in the park reminded him that the deadline for the blurb was in three days.

As he was leaving the park, his phone began to play “Hey Ya!” by OutKast. He had programmed his ringtone for Silver with her favorite song from middle school. He hated when his sisters called him without warning. He and his sisters got along mostly because they adhered to his communications protocol: text Hopper first and then schedule the call.

“Where are you, Hopper?” she asked, as if she didn’t already know. She was checking on him.

“You know, Silver. Cleaning up our family mess in Westbeth,” he answered. “Say, do you remember that poet Stephen who used to come to our parties?”

A pause, then a noncommittal, “Vaguely?”

“Did you hear that he died?” Hopper asked.

“Did he?”

“I don’t know.”

“Me neither,” Silver responded.

“Anyway, I’m heading to lunch with Lola.”

“Are you springing your new idea on him?”

“Yes.”

Hopper had only told Silver that he had an idea for his third book. He had struggled for months over the book. No one except Hopper knew the details of the idea.

“Is that all you’re going to tell me?” she asked.

“Yes. I will text you later. I am nervous about this book and you know I hate talking on the phone.”

“Well, then, big brother, goodbye. Say hi to Stephen the poet for me if you run into him.”

Hopper also hated being called “big brother.”

Continue to Chapter 3 here.

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