He gagged as he shoveled dirt from the trench laid down by the city backhoe. The stench rising from the wooden boxes behind him was overwhelming. Danny didn’t want to think about what was rotting and stinking inside them. Some of the guys in his crew were wearing those white hazmat coveralls and masks, but there weren’t enough to go around. Danny had given his to some geezer who looked ‘way too old to be out there digging graves.
‘Got no need for this, Pops. You can have mine.’ He tossed his gear to the old guy.
As the bile rose in the back of his throat, he regretted his generosity. He swallowed hard, shuddered and focused on his job. He’d lost track of the time hours ago. Every muscle in his body screamed ‘enough!’ Seemed like he worked slower and slower, each shovel-full was agony, but he knew they’d call it a day soon. It was starting to get dark. The whistle blew.
‘Okay, time to knock off!’ the crew boss’s voice rasped through the bullhorn. ‘Ten minutes before the ferry leaves, so get your asses over to the dock, pronto!’
Danny tossed his shovel in the pile with the others. His head hanging, he walked the short distance to the ferry. It took almost the whole ten minutes. The work crew filed onto the boat and found seats. A couple of the guys talked, but most of them just sat quiet, thankful to be done for the day. Danny watched the lights of the Bronx wink on across the water and wondered if the others were as exhausted as he was.
The ferry stopped briefly at City Island to take on a few passengers then continued to the Pelham Bay Park terminal. The #6 was just arriving. After letting off a few riders, it idled, waiting for the Hart Island work crew to board. Danny found a seat near the back of the bus and slid in for the ride.
At Castle Hill an older woman and a young black man boarded, both of them wearing protective masks. Danny watched them find seats through slitted eyes. If he didn’t make eye contact, maybe they’d leave him alone.
No such luck.
‘You there…you should be wearing a mask, you know.’ Why do old women think it’s their business to tell him what to do? He could barely understand her talking through that stupid mask.
‘Don’t need one. I ain’t gonna get that stinkin’ virus.’ The growl in his voice shut her up.
‘Yeah, but yo’ could be givin’ it to us, sucka.’ The black guy leaned forward, aggressive.
‘Shut the fuck up.’
‘Yo’ gonna make me, white boy?’
Danny felt blood rise to his face, hot, readying him to mix it up with that smartass. But even his instant anger couldn’t make his muscles move, fatigued as they were. He slouched down further in his seat, pulled his collar up and muttered something that sounded like ‘go to hell.’ He lowered his eyes. The confrontation was over.
He hoped the two would get off the bus before his stop. They did, leaving him alone with his thoughts, his exhausted body and his work clothes covered with grave dirt and God knew what else. The next several blocks passed in a daze.
He walked the six blocks from the Hunt’s Point stop to his building, climbed five flights of stairs to his flat, and closed the door behind him. Sighing he flipped on the TV; every station was showing the same coronavirus crap and he swore. ‘Damn, some day I’m gonna make enough money to move out of this shithole neighborhood and get me cable TV.’ He was angry again, his face felt hot with it. And he had a headache. Maybe a beer would help.
He pulled a Bud out of the fridge, turned off the TV and sat staring at the blank screen while he took a long pull from the bottle. Ah…that was better. The apartment was dark now, the only light coming in the window that faced an all-night pharmacy. The steady sound of sirens made his headache worse. He crawled into bed, snapped on the bedside light and sipping his beer, leafed through an old Penthouse. Even bare boobs and crotches weren’t enough to keep him awake. Beer half drunk, he fell asleep.
The frigid, gray dawn found him groggy. His head still hurt. He finished off the now-flat bottle of beer for breakfast, pulled on his dirty clothes and started the long, return trip to Hart Island for another day of digging. He shivered with the cold all the way.
The crew took up where they left off the day before, shoveling out dirt so the end-loader could deposit more wooden coffins in the trench. Danny had a hard time keeping up.
‘What’s the matter, Plante,’ the crew boss yelled in his ear. ‘You hung over or something. Get the lead out and keep up!’
Danny tried. It seemed like the harder he tried, the slower he went. His head was pounding, and he couldn’t get warm even with the physical activity. He stared at the dirt; it swam before his eyes. The next thing he knew he was face down in it, spitting it out, gasping for air as he tried to clear his airway.
‘Shit, Plante, you’re sick. Burnin’ up. You got it?’
Danny’s brain wanted to scream, ‘Hell, no, I ain’t got it,’ but he couldn’t seem to connect with his mouth. He felt like he was floating, and he had trouble focusing. Someone covered him with a tarp from the equipment wagon. Didn’t help much, he still felt very cold.
Time must have passed, but Danny was unaware of it. Some commotion roused him from the dark place he’d drifted to. He looked up and saw strange, masked faces, knew they were lifting him, wondered where they were taking him. Those sirens again, why wouldn’t they stop? His head was splitting.
Bright lights, alien beings behind plastic shields, urgent commands, voices trying to calm, too, he thought. He was struggling to breathe; his brain couldn’t make sense of any of it. Someone was asking him a question. About family, a friend. He shook his head ‘no.’ No one, not for a long time. He wanted to ask them why he couldn’t breathe, but there was no breath for that. Something warm flowed through his arm. He’d shot up once on a dare from a friend, it felt kind of the same.
Danny drifted away again. The Emergency Room doctor and nurses intubated him now, placed him on a ventilator. Danny felt none of it; he was drifting further and further. No thoughts, not even any feeling anywhere. They worked on him frantically using every drug they could think of to keep him going. He was too young for this; they had to keeping trying. Danny drifted to an ever-darker place. The ventilator was working at max capacity, but wasn’t capable of pushing in enough oxygen to keep his brain working. Danny’s heart began to beat erratically, then slowed. When it flat-lined, the ER staff knew they’d lost the battle.
He was gone.
The notice was posted in the special section of the New York Times created for coronavirus deaths:
John Daniel Plante, aged 26, died April 2, 2020 at Jacobi Medical Center of Covid-19. Remains interred on Hart Island April 18, 2020. Family or friends may claim the body by contacting the New York Office of the Chief Medical Officer.
So tragic, beautifully written, compelling reading. Well done.
Very poignant piece, Evelyn.