By William Luvaas
At first no one paid it much mind. Some few claimed they could see it, but most didn’t. The Woman On The Corner said she saw it whenever she stepped outside. “The air is all wrinkled,” she said; “it looks like a shirt that needs ironing.” Mr. Taylor who lived next door threw a hand at her and shook his head in disgust. “What color is this shirt?” he asked. They had never gotten along, even though they had lived side by side for twenty years. “She’s a kook,” he would tell you. The guy who parked his Caddy in his front yard, much to the dismay of Yolanda who lived across the street (“You’d think we lived in a junkyard”), talked leisurely about it to people strolling by while he washed his car–sponging it down from a bucket of soapy water and buffing it with a chamois cloth three times a week. “It looks like a mirage you see hanging over the asphalt on a hot day, like heat waves.” He had a Route 66 bumper sticker on the trunk of his Caddy, so you could assume he was familiar with the open road.
The Woman On The Corner nodded her head. “Like I been telling y’all: the air is wrinkled.”
“I only saw it once,” the Caddy lover temporized.
But most in the neighborhood thought this was a lot of hooey, like people did most everywhere. Wrinkled air, for goodness sake. Mr. Hicks, who lived next door to Willy Jefferson, said if he’d learned anything selling insurance for 30 years he’d learned that people are more afraid than they need to be. “Now I’m not complaining. I wouldn’t have a job if they weren’t.”
Willy nodded, but he’d always wondered why anyone would want to sell insurance. It seemed to him that insurance was an investment in disaster. Maybe we can’t avoid it, but who wants to make it their stock in trade? “I blame Facebook and Twitter and all that,” he said. “Facebook has a billion users worldwide, most of them squawking horse shit.”
Mr. Hicks had never known anyone who spoke as crudely as Willy did about serious matters. “That man could run for Congress if he cleaned up his speech,” he told his wife. “He’s smart enough. I almost always agree with what Willy says but never agree with how he says it.”
“Politicians!” His wife frowned. “They’re all like that.”
True enough, many in the neighborhood—and all over the city—blamed politicians for the fuss, but couldn’t understand how it served their reelection bids to spread alarm. Some blamed the media. Willy blamed them both and everyone else who was addicted to sensationalism. In truth, no one was to blame. Or everyone was. It was something in the air, people said. Maybe you couldn’t see it, but it was there, an invisible menace. The experts all agreed. Thomas Sanchez, on the corner of Edgehill, would thump the Bible he regularly read on his front porch and hold forth to passersby: “Doesn’t surprise me any. It’s all predicted in the Book of Revelations. There will be famine and plague and misery upon misery. Hungry wolves will prowl the streets—” glancing left and right as if anticipating their approach “—snakes with blood red eyes will crawl out from under rocks.” Macy O’Brien who was one of the first whites to move into the neighborhood ten years earlier smiled politely. She taught literature at USC and had once taught “The Bible as Literature,” but couldn’t recall any passages about snakes with blood red eyes. However she knew that Thomas was broadly on the mark: The Good Book was full of fear mongering. Many of its writers, especially the prophets, were paranoiacs and some, she suspected, paranoid schizophrenics. She would never have told Thomas this. He was a good man and she wouldn’t want to offend him. If she carped with her neighbors about religion she couldn’t live in the neighborhood. Besides, it wasn’t in her nature to carp with anyone. We are all just trying to get by, she knew; we all need some comfort in times of trouble.
A little further along she encountered Floria Hernandez who seemed quite agitated. “You know I didn’t believe in none of that. I didn’t believe nothing. When is something you can’t see and can’t hear and can’t smell, how you going to believe in something like that? Not even a ghost or nothing. El espectro. Is invisible, right? So I don’t believe. But last night I see. I walk outside for taking out the garbage and I think must be the moon or something. But is no moon. Is a ball with spikes sticking out right on top my head, maybe five feet on top. Then is gone.” Clapping her hands, then gripping her arms and shivering. “Is bad sign, you think? Like flying saucer or something. You think?”
“A ball with spikes coming out?” Macy asked. She had seen an image like this somewhere. On the Internet perhaps. It made her uneasy.
This was the last time she saw Floria Hernandez on her afternoon walk. She asked other neighbors about her, but they just shrugged their shoulders. “Hiding inside maybe, like lots of other people.”
Besides these three—The Woman On The Corner, The Caddy lover, and Floria Hernandez—no one else in the neighborhood had seen anything unusual, nothing paranormal, and most remained dubious, even ridiculed their more impressionable neighbors. Thomas Sanchez might be placed in their company, but he didn’t claim to have witnessed anything strange, merely bore witness that the Bible predicted strangeness and calamity. Calamity upon calamity. War upon war. Plague upon plague. So it didn’t surprise him.
The difficulty with accepting what can’t be seen, Macy thought, is that it has no dimensions, no limits, no definition. It might be anything. And nothing frightens us more than the unknown. We know death, for example. We may not see it coming but from childhood we know it will come and know when it has arrived. We know when something is dead: glassy eyes staring blankly up in a fixed stare as if gazing into infinity. We can’t see hope, but we know when it is thriving; observe it in people’s eyes and in news headlines: ECONOMISTS PREDICT AN UPTICK IN THE FALL QUARTER. True, we can’t see sickness approaching, the flu, for instance, but we are aware of its arrival: the scratchiness at back of the throat, the sudden sniffles and aching joints that precede misery. Whatever this thing was it remained invisible, not just before arriving but after it had arrived. A chimera. This unseen was like all the others combined. A novelist in the city had begun a novel titled The Great Unseen, which was optioned by Netflix before he wrote a single word.
However, some claimed they saw it coming. Or heard it, like chains quietly rattling or wind curling over the eave of a roof. Some, like The Woman On The Corner, saw air wrinkle over houses or a transparent fog moving along the street. They were sincere and guileless. If this thing was an ailment, as some claimed it must be, then it was stealthier than the flu, creepier than Ebola. Suddenly just there, people said, seizing a hold of people. Most disappeared, vanished from the face of the earth without a trace as if whipped away in an alien space craft. Mrs. Hernandez may have been one of these. It was widely reported that a woman in Vladivostok, Russia was walking hand-in-hand with her lover on the beach, when suddenly his hand went limp, and hers fell against her dress. “The air ate him,” she said, but this may have been a poor translation, though a chilling one. If the air could warp and distort and form a spiked ball over your head, if it could wash over surfaces in silent waves like surf washing up on a beach without a whisper and cling to them like sea water clings to sand, then why couldn’t it gobble you up? Snatch you into the ether?
The minister down at the Pentecostal church on the corner of Jefferson promised parishioners that the Lord would snatch them up when the day arrived. Walking along the street, they would rise straight up like a rocket into the air. Or be dashed to the ground if they were nonbelievers, their bones splintering with loud cracks. Foul air, he promised them, couldn’t enter God’s house. The pastor had never seemed more enthusiastic in his sermons, almost happy. But some in his flock wondered why the Lord permitted an invisible devil to beat him to the punch. If people were snatched up off the ground, why shouldn’t they be snatched up in the rapture rather than by a demon? Eaten, some said.
While across town in an entirely different world, up north in West Hollywood (although tainted air was said to be present there, too), a spiritual leader named Baba Ram Baba assured his devotees that this “Foul air business” was propaganda foisted on a naive population by “life haters.” Legs folded beneath him in a lotus position, rocking back and forth on his haunches, he resembled the Dalai Lama in his yellow robes. “This thing is a fog of ignorance like all things feared and desired by the unenlightened.”
But this “bad air” or “foul air” theory was rapidly catching on. Some said it was just pollution which they’d had for years in Los Angeles and most everywhere else, especially China. That March, for some reason, it had gotten particularly bad, which was odd since it was an unusually wet and windy March when you might expect pollution to disperse. Some crackpot posted a theory on social media that quickly went viral. He claimed the foul air was a neurotoxin like sarin gas that had been released by North Korea, which not only sickened people but drove them mad. They twirled around in circles, pulling out their hair, becoming dizzy and winded. They couldn’t breathe. Some attacked their loved ones. It worked both on your limbic system and the frontal cortex, the seat of empathy and morality, causing people to do things they would not normally have done. More a mental than a physical ailment. Although it was hard to understand why anyone would release a toxin that spread across the world on air currents and would eventually endanger even North Koreans.
The claim all over the Internet and in the media was that it drove out the healthy air and filled victims’ lungs with foul air which slowly congealed and hardened like concrete in your lungs. This could take weeks or months. Or it could happen instantly. But who could believe news on the Internet?
It was said that silent carriers filled with bad air went stalking victims once the foul air took control of their moral system. It was essentially a moral ailment. Never before in history had such a thing been seen, and humans had no immunity to it. It wasn’t just that carriers—“Hunters” as they were called—were infected with foul air and might not realize it or were in denial about it, but that they purposely sought recruits and became predators upon their fellow man. This happened only after the ailment had progressed past the initial silent phase. Who could believe such a thing? That the stricken chose to infect their own families, that they passed through grocery stores breathing foul air on packaged goods and vegetables, slinking along with cruel little smiles, knowing they would gain new recruits, much like vampires. Because, it was said, whoever touched what a Hunter had touched became infected. Some said college-age Hunters gathered on beaches among heedless young sunbathers. Moving their beach towels close to those still breathing good air, they would wink and nod at each other and pen in healthy bathers so they could not escape the foul air exhaled all around them. A pulmonologist in Milan said the world could expect to see more Hunters among the young than among older populations. Of course he did not use the term “Hunters.” No one in official positions did. He called them “positives.” Positive in what way? There was no way to test who carried foul air and who didn’t. No way to tell by looking at them—or so we thought early on.
But many rejected such thinking. As skeptical as you might be about people’s capacity for goodness, you likely weren’t ready to believe they would purposely endanger their own children. Thomas Sanchez, that enthusiastic doomsdayer, was infuriated by such thinking. “The Lord burned Sodom and Gomorrah because the people were evil. He condemned Cain to wander the earth in torment because he killed his brother. Righteousness is rewarded and evil is punished even today. God would never permit the slaughter of innocent children or defenseless elders.”
This, after all, was during that time of elections when the candidates themselves (who all insisted they were negative) drew crowds of fanatic followers who breathed freely on one another, then fled out of auditoriums to breathe on others.
The Woman On The Corner was one of the first to report—first on Neighbor to Neighbor, then on social media—that Hunters were accosting people on the street, wrestling them to the ground and breathing foul air directly into their mouths, pinching their noses closed as if performing mouth to mouth resuscitation on a drowning victim, except in this case drowning them with their own foul air. Once their victims’ cheeks puffed up like balloons, they released their nostrils, and good air hissed out of their noses as foul air filled their lungs. The Woman On The Corner claimed to have seen one tackling another neighbor and performing this ugly act of moral violation on her. (Macy wondered if it was Mrs. Hernandez.) Mr. Taylor said this was proof positive that the Woman On The Corner was off her head. “I never seen no one tackling anybody and I walk maybe two hours every day. When does that woman ever leave her house? How’s she gonna see some air mugger or whatever the hell they are?” There were similar reports from Rome and Cairo and Beijing and, especially, New York: people seen tackling others in public and giving them mouth to mouth. But you expected that of New York even in normal times. Stock traders were said to tackle others on the trading floor, but they’d been doing that for years. It was a theory, anyway, that caught on mightily on the Internet, likely because it’s a medium that thrives on paranoia, some would say hate.
Still, early on, if they could have been counted, the deniers surely outnumbered the alarmed. Isn’t this always the case with bad news? We do not want to believe in calamity until we can no longer ignore it. If this weren’t true, we would all be hiding under rocks. Young deniers congregated in large numbers in defiance of the foul air panic. “This is Y2K all over again,” they insisted. “Much ado about nothing. Man up, dude. You can’t walk around scared all the time. Hey, the air is bad everywhere. What else is new?”
Then came the epidemic of crows, hordes of them flying in tattered formation, scolding and squawking, rattling dice back in their throats as they occupied the branches of magnolia trees and weighed down palm fronds, staring hungrily down at us with their evil little black eyes. Upon seeing them, some people fled into their houses or cars, terrified when a murder of crows (as it is called) dive-bombed them. It was claimed the crows were conveyors of foul air; they thrived on it. “They’s demons, you know,” The Woman On The Corner said, “always has been. Just listen to them crow and tell me they don’t sound like devils!” She was constantly putting posts on “Neighbor To Neighbor,” which was once an informal community bulletin board, noting street fairs, road closures, and public meetings about police efforts to control petty theft. Though there had always been an element of anxiety on the site: reports of broken car windows and stolen batteries, police action at the Smart and Final on Crenshaw, so that if you read Neighbor to Neighbor regularly you would think the neighborhood was a war zone. The Woman On The Corner often posted about young men going door to door with clipboards, casing houses. Now Neighbor To Neighbor contributors had begun to post the latest reports of foul air hot spots—certain alleys and liquor stores you needed to avoid. Some small businesses were forced to close their doors after a few such posts.
Others, the lighthearted, the glass-half-fullers fed and encouraged the crows. They threw out bird seed in their backyards for them. The crows gathered in flocks, screeching and chasing each other away. It was a point of pride to these folks to have crows follow them, fleeting from tree to tree as they walked down the sidewalk or gliding slowly overhead like dark drones. It was total rot and bird bigotry, they said, to imagine crows breathed only bad air and carried it with them to contaminate entire blocks. They were beautiful creatures. Very smart. Very savvy. They knew more about human beings than humans knew about them. That’s precisely the trouble, one of the fearful posted, they know we are in trouble, and they’re closing in.
It was said that the Hunters lost their sense of taste and smell immediately after their lungs filled with bad air. This was why they were so hungry—at least appeared so to the few who witnessed them. Smell and taste went long before their lungs began to harden, before they began to tackle people on the street and violate them mouth to mouth. They were seemingly perfectly normal, mixing with others, including their own families, and suddenly found themselves unable to smell or taste. They become monstrously envious of those who retained their senses, even of their own mates and children. Grandmothers snatched food off the plates of their grandchildren and stuffed it ravenously in their mouths, thinking that it must be more nourishing than the tasteless food on their own plates, which was as bland as cardboard. The whole point of taste and smell is, after all, to whet the appetite. They seized their grandchildren by the back of the neck and pulled their faces close to peer into their eyes, thinking them secret carriers, or about to become so, because they recognized each other. Alarmed families locked such aggressive grannies in a back room to keep them from terrifying the children, only to find, a few days later, their children acting in much the same way: seizing food off plates with famished, hostile little grins. Imagine what it must be to eat tasteless food; you would lose all desire to eat. No wonder they looked hungry. No wonder crows followed people about, hopping from tree to tree in hopes they would have a scrap of bread concealed in their pockets, prepared to assault them if they didn’t give it up.
This was one of the greatest horrors of the foul air outbreak reported on social media: entire families mistrusting one another, locked away in separate rooms so they couldn’t accost each other. What became of such families? How were feeding arrangements managed? Access to bathrooms? No one could be sure because they didn’t dare venture into such homes, notorious repositories of foul air. Not even the police would step inside when they received reports of domestic violence unless they were equipped with hazmat suits, which few were. There were reports of family members killing each other, even reports of family cannibalism. This can’t be believed. We may be monstrous at times, but we aren’t monsters. Although a woman from Spain put up social media posts that went viral and were reported to have had more views than the Olympic Games, which went into great detail about how first their grandfather caught the foul air and seized food from his beloved grandkids’ plates and breathed foul air into their mouths. Who can believe such a thing? Then the six children ganged up on their father. He rapidly progressed through the stages of olfactory loss and other early symptoms of bad air, turning a greenish hue within four hours, his eyes gone hollow, his lungs, given the tortured way he was breathing, already beginning to clog up with mucousy cement. He chased his wife around the house, and she holed up in a bedroom and pushed furniture against the door to keep him out. From there she delivered reports on Skype to a fascinated, if horrified, world, placing her iPhone against the door so listeners could hear crows squawking outside and her husband’s rants, occasional screeching hullabaloos—either as if he was wringing the necks of crows and devouring them, feathers and all, or they were pecking greedily at him. At one point, we distinctly heard him collapse to the floor with a hollow thud. Poor man was a goner. Soon after that she said she was losing her sense of smell and pleaded with the world:
Try to love one another, impossible as that seems in a time of
hate. Confuse hate by turning it backwards into love. Stay away
from others even if you are tortured by lack of touch and avoid
sex. God is testing us. Think of how much worse it could be:
Sodom and Gomorrah or the Black Plague. God wants to learn
if he made a mistake in creating us. He wants to know if we can
remain good and hopeful even on the doorstep of hell. He wants
to know if we are still a creation made in his Own image and has
devised the foul air experiment to find out.
Some were moved by this. Others said it was sentimental hooey. Still others that it was blasphemy. Many thought the whole thing was a fabrication, since it was generally accepted that the Hunters deliberately posted misinformation to mislead and terrify the public, telling them such and such a place was safe to hike, only to be waiting in the bushes to leap on hikers. Telling them that only those with hollow eyes could be trusted. That the best way to defeat the bad air was to congregate on beaches where fresh air blows in off the sea. That wearing a coconut shell as a skull cap kept bad air away. This explained the run on coconuts.
Scientists generally applauded and seized upon the Spanish woman’s account, for it suggested that the greater the infusion of foul air the more quickly the victim was overcome by it. They had suspected this. Now the father’s rapid decline proved it. The Spanish woman’s account was made especially potent by the low, soothing timbre of her voice, so calm and nearly angelic, making the horrors she was reporting seem all the more horrendous.
But it wasn’t just Hunters who deliberately posted misinformation. There were 3 devils, Willy Jefferson told his neighbor Hicks: Hunters (breathers and purveyors of bad air), Fear mongers (who believed that good air everywhere was being replaced by bad), and Deniers (who insisted there was nothing to worry about). “It’s been that way throughout human history,” he said. “Hate, fear, and denial, the three potentates of misery. The Bible is full of examples and great literature, too. All three of them are hard at work advocating for their position.”
Beyond the coconut shells, there were other myths. Willy kept a list of them:
– Cow urine protects you from bad air (originating in India).
– Not a single surfer has been found with bad air syndrome, because their lungs are full of good air coming off the sea (originating in California).
– Chili peppers drive bad air away.
– Mockingbirds, which attack crows, are one of the heroes of the bad air epidemic.
– Foul air hangs above the houses of evil people, especially Democrats (originating, it is said, from a Baptist church in Florida).
– Bad air warps the air over Republican households (also concocted in California).
– Bad air is just good air gone bad.
* * *
[This is an excerpt from a novella which I hope to finish by the end of April,
about the time the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to reach its peak]
William Luvaas is the author of four novels and two story collections. His awards include an NEA Fellowship, the Huffington Post’s 2013 Book of the Year, and first place in Glimmer Train’s Fiction Open Contest. www.williamluvaas.com