Luke Bradford….where are you?

So far, there have been no reported cases of Covid-19 in Watervalley. 

Gene Alley, the DJ down at radio station WVLY has been urging everyone to stay spaced out. Given Gene’s somewhat wacky persona, most folks weren’t completely sure he was talking about social distancing. 

People still question the appropriateness of Gene in that role. Giving him a microphone is like giving an airline to a bunch of terrorist. 

Down at the barber shop, Maylon isn’t cutting hair. But he still leaves the place unlocked so that some of the elderly locals could space out along the walls and corners to catch up on the latest news. Pre-virus, the group already averaged 1.5 hearing aids per man, making the conversation an amiable shouting match. The added distance provided little notable difference. 

Appropriately, they all wear mask. This seemed awkward at first but quickly became part of the regular apparel along with ball caps with names of heavy equipment on the front and at least one piece of clothing that was camo. The biggest topic of debate is a report that 52% of coronavirus cases are undetected. How do they detect the undetected cases…and with so much accuracy? 

When the crisis first developed several weeks ago, word went out that everyone needed to stock up on essentials. The highest indicator of a panic was the immediate run on chewing tobacco. Amos Tidwell, owner of the local Bi-Rite finally had to ration customers to two packs each. Over the course of the day, he had to take a similar stand on grits. This should have come as no surprise. The general consensus in Watervalley is that anyone who doesn’t like grits is a heathen and doesn’t love the Lord. 

The farmers Co-op was considered an essential service and has remains busy. It has also been home base for a small romance…proving that there is love in the time of coronavirus. Lester from down at the loading dock just bought a new truck to upgrade his image. He did it hoping he would get the attention of Barbara Jean Pendergrass who works behind the register. Apparently, it worked. Upon seeing it, Barbara Jean declared, “I just loooove your new truck.” In the South, this is somewhat akin to a mating call. 

Meanwhile, the whole “isolation at home” thing has been a godsend for John Harris. He and Ann are happily married. She still works at the clinic and comes home every evening to a ritual of showering and clothing precaution. But John couldn’t be happier. He now feels empowered to never be around anyone. Most likely, the only person more adept at social distancing is Bigfoot. 

Activity over at the Watervalley clinic is both up and down. Patients aren’t coming for physicals or routine check-ups, but there is an uptick in those concerned about having a cold, the flu, or, heaven forbid, the virus. Matthew House appeared to have it all well in control. 

From the beginning of his tenure at the clinic, Matthew had been methodically and calmly accepted by both the staff and the people of Watervalley. He wasn’t Luke Bradford and it seemed that few expected him to be. 

He was different. 

He had a certain refined erudition to his speech. It seemed that the vestiges of his former life as a language professor still held a lunar sway over his choice of words. And while not overly expressive, he spoke with a certain artistry, providing sober yet softly buoyant assurances to his patients. His manner was an odd mix of both seriousness and serenity. Given the fear and uncertainty of the times, his confident assertions instilled a prevailing calm in the people of Watervalley, providing them signal fires on the distant hills of an anxious future. He was not as approachable as Dr. Bradford. But they had grown to see him as reliable, knowledgeable, and, most of all, gently encouraging. And oddly, he had an incredible knack for remembering everybody’s name.

But inwardly, Matthew had his doubts. He took comfort in knowing that in a few short months, Luke would be returning.

As both business partners and linked family, he and Connie had quickly evolved into a second nature understanding of each other. In Connie’s eyes he was more mature, more reserved than Luke. Being both older and a father, he did not have Luke’s boyish gregariousness. At least, not most of the time. 

Connie spent her days overseeing the renovation of the old mansion into the destination Bed and Breakfast that she and Matthew envisioned it to be. Thus, she was invariably there when Matthew came home in the evening.  

When he arrived home from work last Thursday, the twins were playing upstairs, and Connie was in the kitchen. As he entered the room, Connie quickly noticed that he looked bewildered and worried, with a hunted air about him.

“Everything okay, Dr. House. You look like you just ate a bad oyster.”

Matthew thumbed through the mail. “I’m fine. Bit of a challenging day.”

“How so?”

“I think we’re all a little on edge about when the first Covid case will show up.”

“Understandable. But that’s been nothing new for the last several weeks. What’s different about today?”

Matthew set the mail aside, noting Connie’s persistence. “Not sure. Just an odd mix of patients.”

“Such as?”

Matthew glanced at her briefly, knowing two things for certain. Saying anything to Connie about any of his patients was a pure violation of HIPPA laws. Given that it was Connie, doing just that was the other certainty. 

“Well, to start the day, Cotton Shepard was there at eight AM sharp, just like he’s been for the last twenty days. It’s not enough just to take his temperature.  He insists on seeing me to know if blurred vision, ingrown toenails, or a strange itch were Covid-19 symptoms. How old is Cotton, anyway?”

“Pretty old. He probably could have been on the first episode of “The Newlywed Game.”

“Cotton talks and moves so slow I’m surprised moss doesn’t grow on him.”

Connie was unaffected and retrieved a bottle of water from the fridge. “I hardly think a visit from Cotton is a sign that the last trumpet had sounded.”

Matthew shrugged. “Noted.”

“So. Who else darkened your door?”

“Ava Dell Speakman came by with a littany of complaints.”

 “I admit, Ava Dell can talk the color off a zinnia. But other than that, she’s harmless. There’s got to be more to this funk of yours.”

“An early forties fellow stopped in. Apparently, he had not been practicing social distancing.”

“Was it Covid-19?”

“No, but it was a social disease. He’s single and apparently a bit of a lothario.”

Connie responded frigidly. “Oh, you’re talking about Johnny Malugin. On the food chain, that fool is just below pond scum. He’s pretty adept at breaking the ten commandments, and not the one about making graven images.”

Matthew grinned. “I’ll neither confirm nor deny.”

Connie pondered for a moment. “Is something not going well with your new girlfriend, the book store owner.”

Matthew stiffened. “For your information, Ms. Thompson, I don’t have a girlfriend.”

Connie offered only a rather austere and censorious look. “If she’s not a girlfriend, then what do you call it?”

“Let’s just call it an effervescent friendship.”

“Humph,” Connie replied, taking a sip of the water. “Tomato-tomatto.” 

Matthew folded his arms and grinned. “You know, Luke said you would be like this.”

Connie raised her chin and spoke innocently. “Like what?”

“This persistent, dog with a bone nature. I arrive home presenting like a wounded animal and your maternal instincts start kicking in. You’re a good soul, Connie. A wonderful one, actually. But you’ve got your hands full with everything here. You don’t need to take on the job of designated worrier also.”

Connie laughed and held up her hand. “Fine, fine. I’ll try to remember I’m not your Camp Counselor. At a minimum, I’ll work at being more subtle.”

“I don’t think subtle is in your programing, Connie.”

A silence ensued, and the air grew lighter.

“Besides,” Matthew offered, gazing out the kitchen windows, “there’s really a lot of good news out there despite the fact that the media is having a heyday with all the bad.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“Well sure. According to some reports, charitable giving is at an all-time high. Neighbors are doing their best to help each other. Business owners and managers are forgoing their salary to help pay wages to employees. People are showing their humanity, their selflessness. Frankly, I call that a miracle.”

Connie listened impassively. “A miracle, huh?”

“Well, sure. What do you call it?”

Connie thought for a moment and began to gather her things to go. But before reaching the arched opening into the hallway, she stopped, turned, and spoke with soft affection. “Here in Watervalley, Matthew, we call that Tuesday.”

Soon after, the housekeeper, Ms. Tsui, (pronounced sue-ee) appeared from the upstairs in her normal state of flurry. “Good. You home. Now, leave kitchen. I must prepare dinner for children.”

“What are you making?”

“Spaghetti with meatball. Don’t worry. I make enough for you, too. Now, leave kitchen.”

“Ms. Tsui, how come you never make any Chinese dishes?”

“Too salty. Not healthy. Now, go.”

Matthew knew that further engagement was meaningless. He exited the kitchen door and made his way to the large expanse of the back yard. He needed time. Time to process his phone conversation with Luke from earlier in the day. 

The hour of sunset was approaching. As he ventured further into the large rear field, the sky caught fire and enormous shafts of light shot across the western hills. But soon, the golden aura was evaporating into the evening air and in time was replaced by a silver flood of moon. 

Luke had been reassigned. He explained to Matthew that he and other researchers had been asked to join a task force toward finding a cure for the virus. It was a joint effort with multiple universities and he would be working on only a small part of it. Matthew congratulated him and thought this would be a good thing. But in that moment, he realized that Luke would not be coming back this summer as planned. After a long pause he asked Luke this question, to which Luke replied, “no idea.”

Matthew knew that his work at the clinic would have to continue well into the foreseeable future. When he took the temporary assignment, he had not realized that he was following in the footsteps of a near deity. Often times he felt like Luke’s lowly acolyte. But he also realized that this title was largely self-imposed. 

Privately, it was not the role he had seen for himself when he choose to come to Watervalley. But he was caught in the gears of circumstance, just like so many thousands of others in this precarious time. 

By now, nightfall was upon him and the cool, enchanted stars twinkled in an ever-changing scrimmage of light. For the longest time, he stared up at them. And somehow, he soon felt enveloped in the clarity of the world before him. To Matthew, it seemed a moment of sheer divinity. 

He realized that Luke had grown to love Watervalley, and in turn, Watervalley had loved him in return. But unlike Luke, from his first day in Watervalley, Matthew never had the sense that he had settled into some lower world with a lesser moon. His head, his heart, and the peculiar but palpable voice of destiny had brought him here. He knew that Watervalley was as vast an acreage for a full and extraordinary life as any other place on earth. He knew he was where he was supposed to be, and that time and fate had equipped him to play the part handed to him. 

For now, that was enough. 

He inhaled deeply of the cooler air and stared into the far heavens one last time. Then, quietly, gratefully, he turned his steps toward home. 

I’m Jeff High. And for now, in Watervalley, that’s pretty much the high point.