Ethan Goffman

Ethan Goffman is the author of the poetry collections I Garden Weeds (Cyberwit, 2021) and Words for Things Left Unsaid (Kelsay Books, 2020) as well as the flash fiction collection Dreamscapes (UnCollected Press, 2021). I Garden Weeds is 2nd place winner of the Taj Mahal Review Poetry Prize. Ethan is co-founder of It Takes a Community, which brings poetry to Montgomery College students and nearby residents, and is founder and producer of the Poetry & Planet podcast on EarthTalk.org. Ethan also writes nonfiction on transportation alternatives for Greater Greater Washington and other publications.

The Book of Joe

Joe had had the perfect life until, in five short, interminably long years, the world turned inside out. For no reason he could fathom, his wife left him. “I’m sick of it,” she said one day, but sick of what and why? She returned to her job as a nurse, rented an apartment, and was gone. For the next few years, Joe suspected an affair and, when his former wife did remarry two years later—a medical technician from the hospital where she worked—it confirmed his belief. She must have met him during her brief visit—for a gash in a car accident—to the emergency room, and fallen in love on the spot. Or at least fallen in lust. Then, after she separated from Joe, the technician must have helped her get the job while they plotted the marriage.

Along with a group of friends, I heard this story from Joe over a number of Zoom meetings during the second year of the pandemic. We had been holding weekly get-togethers from our lonely homes to help survive hard times, and Karen, who had started the group, invited Joe knowing that he was under cancer treatment. I have pieced this story together from the fragments Joe dangled out, keeping in mind that a good story is more important than complete fidelity to the truth.

Joe made up for his late entry to the group with copious chatter. “I’m certain they planned it from the beginning,” he said one time, “right from when my wife was in the hospital bed.”

“Joe, are you okay?” said Karen. “Don’t be bitter.”

“I’m never bitter. I don’t have time for it.”

Shortly after his wife left him, Joe’s son graduated from college and flew thousands of miles from their New Jersey home, to Hollywood, for a job as a special effects coordinator. Joe was proud but lonely. Meanwhile, he got hit by the first wave of Covid, suffering chills, congestion, coughing, headache, and nightmares in which he wandered cold streets through shadows, through mazes of decaying buildings, searching for his dead parents, his missing wife, his distant son. Stumbling through a dark forest, then a swamp, he arrived at a dilapidated shack made of straw, front door cracked open. Entering, he witnessed a strange glow silhouetting a mysterious figure . . . awoke alone to slivers of light creeping through the blinds.

Around that time, Joe’s daughter had whisked off, as if by some teleportation device, to the other side of the world, Indonesia, for a job in international banking. Though both children kept in touch by text and Zoom, it wasn’t the same as having them there, within a half hour drive.

“Perhaps it was meant to be,” Karen told Joe. “I’m glad my children left. It’s like the birds leaving the nest. The mama bird, who nurtured them and taught them to fly, should be happy. It means you’ve been a successful parent.”

“Birds aren’t humans,” said Leo. “We’re more like wolves, meant to live in packs. When your children leave, it’s like the wolf pack dissolving. It’s against nature. You have probably done something to drive them away.”

“I can’t believe you even said that,” said Karen. “Obviously, Joe’s children love him. If you’re offered a great job you just take it. That’s our society today. But it’s selfish and individualistic. In a way.”

“It’s silly to compare humans to animals,” I said. “We understand things in a way that animals can’t. That’s why we suffer so much. An animal just exists, but humans are always second-guessing themselves, wondering what we did to cause our suffering, wallowing in mistakes and sorrow.”

“I don’t wallow,” said Joe.

* * *

Recovered from Covid, as confirmed by two negative test results, Joe suffered strange symptoms—fever, chills, fatigue, night sweats, pain permeating the bones, penetrating the marrow. His doctor said it was psychosomatic—this was shortly before long Covid was acknowledged and it seemed to make sense that all these psychological blows were manifesting themselves in physical symptoms. Fortunately, Joe was able to work from home in his job as an accountant; he could never have made it to the office every day if that were required. However, his symptoms worsened. His neck became swollen and stiff, so swallowing food was difficult. His every breath was a self-conscious effort. He lost his appetite, dropped thirty pounds, but maintained a strong desire for air, for life.

“Something’s wrong,” Joe told his doctor, and begged for more tests.

The diagnosis was devastating: stage 3 leukemia. This necessitated cruel treatments that drowned Joe under waves of nausea and blasted him with cluster headaches. His nightmares grew worse—a small devil named Cynthia came to him by night, pricking at his flesh with a tiny spear, causing sensations between tickling and pain all through his legs, outside and in. “Hell awaits,” Cynthia seemed to say one time, although her voice was garbled.

“But why?” Joe asked himself. “I’ve been a good person. Did I neglect my wife and children? I should have spent more time with them. But maybe our time together didn’t satisfy them? Maybe I just didn’t know how to express myself? Or everything I said was shallow? Maybe I’m a shallow person, but I don’t deserve hell.”

“Cynthia is just a delusion,” said Leo, “brought on by all the panic and stress. Hell, I’m having strange dreams myself, and I’m healthy and able to work from home. Life is unfair. It’s like a boxing match. You have to keep jabbing, punching, moving forward. In the end, people judge us by our accomplishments.”

“Life’s not a boxing match,” said Karen. “It’s more like a dance. Everyone is working together to create something beautiful. Right now, we’re all in a tragic part of the dance, but tragedy is only part of a greater beauty. We’re being tested, and Joe, you’re being tested even more. Maybe it’s because you’re a special person. I do think that Cynthia is a spirit coming to you. Not a devil, but maybe some kind of guardian angel in disguise.”

“Why would a guardian angel disguise itself?” I asked. “Cynthia might be a delusion, but she could also be an evil spirit. Or even the devil. Maybe Satan made a bet with God just to make Joe’s life more miserable?”

“That’s nonsense,” said Leo. “There are no angels or devils, just people trying and failing, or fighting through and moving on.”

“That’s a horrible view of life,” Karen blurted. “What did Joe do to deserve all this?”

“We all suffer,” I said, “but maybe we all deserve it. Maybe we all sin. At least we’re all self-absorbed. Maybe the pandemic is revenge for our hubris.”

“There is no explanation,” said Leo. “It’s just a random universe.”

“Not so random,” I said. “Humans have been penetrating rain forests, eating wild animals, destroying nature, and nature strikes back. And the Chinese tried to cover the pandemic up, which just let it spread. Humans bring grief on themselves.”

“That’s blaming the victims,” said Karen. “Most humans are innocent and just want to live. We’re victims of the greedy few. We just need to love one another and maybe then, somehow, everything will be all right.”

* * *

Joe did visit hell briefly, in the darkest of night, sucked into the depths by Cynthia and a small cosmic whirlwind. Far below our universe, he couldn’t help but stare at tormented souls bathing, naked and misshapen, in rivers of lava, aglow against the fierce darkness. They whimpered and begged forgiveness.

“I’m not one of them,” said Joe, averting his eyes, and instantly ascended. Still, Cynthia began to visit him even during the day, whispering garbled nothings in his ear.

The seventh time Cynthia appeared, just before dawn, Joe exploded. “Go away,” he screamed, with a force that seemed to burst his lungs, and swatted her like a mosquito. She popped and splattered, bright crimson dissipating in drips onto the carpet below. A bitter stain persisted all through the day, although the next morning it was gone.

As Joe finally began to recover, felt more himself, took daily walks in a nearby park with twittering birds and shading oak trees, his cat, Sprinkles, got sick. The diagnosis came quick: feline leukemia. Did she get the same disease out of some strange sympathy? She was pathetic in her last days, scrawny, mewling, rubbing against him, sleeping on top of him, peeing all over the house.

With all his misfortunes, did Joe curse God and ask, “Why hast thou forsaken me”? That’s not what he told us.

Joe said that his trials had given him a new perspective, that he was ecstatic for each rising sun. He also bragged, repeatedly, that he was snarfing down Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia and Wegman’s chocolate cake with butter frosting every day to regain all of the weight he had lost. Doctor’s orders.

“That’s fantastic,” said Karen. “You deserve it!”

“Just don’t get diabetes,” I said.

“A little cake is fine,” said Karen. “Joe needs to indulge himself.”

During the whole period when Joe’s story trickled out, I myself was suffering indigestion, heartburn and broken sleep when, in a pandemic gorge, I put on 80 pounds. I would eat a whole box of jalapeno poppers or an entire cheesecake, partly frozen, just before bed. Unlike Joe, I’ve never been married, although I’ve lived with a woman three times—the last broke up just before the pandemic after nearly a year. I’m not sure whether it’s better to have spent most of my life basically alone or, like Joe, to have had everything and lost it all

Still, I maintain my job and my sanity. My doctor told me it was a wonder I didn’t suffer more health problems. Luckily, I’ve always had a strong constitution. Or maybe unluckily, since it allows me to just go on, spinning my wheels. Or is treading water a better metaphor? So many metaphors for going nowhere. Maybe the whole pandemic is a metaphor?

Was overcoming troubles the secret to Joe’s happiness? Is that why I, who have now forsaken desserts entirely under doctor’s orders— (except for an occasional cookie or slice of cake)—am so much more miserable than Joe?

Just last night, I had a flicker of a dream—or think I remember dreaming it. Cynthia beckoning to me, but a giant Cynthia the size of a whale, face and breast of a naked woman, elongated tail, swimming through air, wearing a bib and poking at me with a gargantuan fork and knife, calling me, calling me.

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