After the Rain by Cynthia Robinson Young
After the Rain by Cynthia Robinson Young
“Few days following the death of the rats,
Men pass away like falling walls.” –Chinese poet Shih Tao
The first thing I noticed was the rats. How they were dying right in the middle of Broad Street.
Just a week before I had parked my car and walked down to the ice cream store to pick up a pint for my birthday. It was easy to park. Not many folks think about getting ice cream in the middle of February.
There were no rat bodies littering the sidewalks or streets then. But I did see something I’d never seen before. One ran right in front of me and into the sewer. I remember the entire conversation I had with a stranger. It started off with me screaming…
“What’s a rat doing running in the street? And in the middle of the day?” I asked the person who was approaching me from the opposite direction. He stopped and looked at the direction the rat had run.
“It’s actually not that crazy,” he replied. I looked at him like he was crazy. That’s when I noticed the glasses, the wild hair. He looked like a young Einstein, hair not yet white. “What, with the chicken factory right down the street…and all these little restaurants right here. I mean, it makes sense.”
“It doesn’t make sense to me,” I said as I grabbed a handful of my dreadlocks and pushed them back from my face, a habit that I don’t know when I adopted, but I do when I’m nervous. “I don’t like rats. And I sure don’t like them running around on Broad Street in broad daylight!”
“Broad daylight? On Broad Street? Hey, you’re funny!” he laughed. I shook my head and pushed my hair away from my face again. I should get a headband or something.
“Well, hope we don’t see anymore,” I said, walking away, refocusing on my destination and creating a new one—to get away from this conversation.
That was February 13th.
A week later we woke up to reports of dead rat bodies scattered all over Broad Street, on the sidewalks, in the streets, looking like they’d been poisoned or something. I didn’t need to go look in person. Watching it on tv was enough for me. “Just clean ‘em up,” I said to the television screen as they reported it on the 11:00 news. “Just clean ‘em up.”
Come to find out, rats were doing that all over the world. I would’ve known if I’d been listening to live radio instead of audiobooks; or watching the news on the television instead of Netflix on my computer. Or if I hadn’t made a vow to avoid social media because it was starting to get on my nerves with all the opinions, not based on fact. So I missed the fact that rats had first started dying in the countryside of France, but nobody paid attention to it because they didn’t connect it with anything. And rats dying in the countryside didn’t seem to be as gross as rats dying in the city streets of Aix de Provence or Paris.
By the time it got to being reported in the United States, everyone realized rats were dying in their own countries. That must have been the end of January, I think, or the beginning of February. Folks were taking pictures of it, but no governments were saying anything about it, and it wasn’t on CNN or MSNBC. Now, knowing what we know, they admit it was a cover up. But back then, if CNN or MSNBC ignored a story, America didn’t know about it, and if they knew about it from FOX News, they didn’t believe it. That’s the way we were back then. Seems so long ago now.
Found out through Fox news that Cats were first. That explained the abundance of the rats. And then people started getting infected. But not in the United States. Not so out of control on “The Continent”, “The Motherland”… Africa. But all over Europe. Like Norway, and Finland, and Switzerland… all those Scandinavian countries. And that’s when people started talking. But not about a epidemic for people, but for the cats. People who didn’t even like cats, who hated them were sad and worried. There were a lot of sad kitty postings on Facebook. I know this because I got back on again, realizing it was time to be more up to date on the news. But still I didn’t know what was really going on.
Went to Costco today, just to pick up some stuff and walk the aisles in my relaxing “shopping daze”, eating samples and browsing through the book table. While I was walking through the aisles, I called my daughter to see if she wanted anything, to save her a trip.
Just toilet paper. And cat food I guess, she texted, after not picking up.
But when I turned the corner to the paper aisle, there was nothing! Empty shelves up to the ceiling. No toilet paper. No paper towels. No toilet wipes, even.
I saw a Costco employee and went up to him. “Where’s the toilet paper?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Strangest thing. There were like 300 people waiting at the door this morning when we opened. They cleaned us out!”
“Is it because of the cats?”
“The cats? I don’t know nuthin’ about how cats are related to no toilet paper. Because we have toilet paper in stock. We just haven’t had a chance to shelve it yet because of the rush. But come back tomorrow.”
So I came back the next day. And the next. By that time everyone had caught on. So not only was there no toilet paper in Costco, there was no toilet paper, there was none anywhere. But there was plenty of cat food.
Thinking back, this happened just before I saw the rat on Broad Street– if a person had an indoor cat, they were likely not to notice anything. But if they had an indoor cat that went out, or a cat that they kept outside, like the Caines down the block, well… they were never seen again. There were lots of emails in the neighbor list serve about missing pets. Made sense to post it, because that’s what we do, and we’ve always been a vigilant, thoughtful, and compassionate group. We help find missing mail, missing bikes, and missing pets. But now, when someone found a missing cat, we didn’t post. It would hurt the vibe of the list to say, “Hey, I saw your cat. He’s on 38th street and Beulah…literally.” Mrs. Washington’s story—she was the old woman who claimed she was one of the only Black homeowners left in the neighborhood since the white folks decided they wanted it back and took it—which we thought was always funny when she went off about it, since she herself was white. But she said she chose to stop being white after what happened to the neighborhood, “What with all those damn white folks movin’ in and takin’ over! Can’t even paint my house the color I want without them nosing in!” Her old Black friends had been pushed out long ago. Now, her cats were her only friends, really. All of them had a name, even though there were so many they had to live outside. She always said she’d never sell her Craftsman bungalow after she fought so much redlining and racism to live in it. When they called with their offers, she said she ripped up the postcards and letters, she hung up the phone on ‘em. Said that the only way she was leaving The Neighborhood was in a casket.
When her cats died, she died. On the Neighborhood List serve, someone said they saw her out in her backyard that night, feeding them like she always did. Of course, everyone said she was the first one to have the virus, the plague, whatever. That that is what killed her. But I think it was all of her furry friends gone. Most of them dead at her doorstep where they stayed throughout the day—close to the only one who cared for them. So sad that she meant what she said.
If I had known this would be my last time seeing my friends and being in a bar, I would have tried to enjoy the moment more. What I wouldn’t give for another Whiskey Sour. Made with Chattanooga Whiskey, but hey, I’ll take it made with moonshine at this point.
Went to dinner at my boyfriend’s favorite restaurant , basically to watch him it pile untold amounts of meat on his plate, his tongs in midair, ready to help the meat servers every time they came by. I shoulda been suspicious when he kept demanding the rawest meat on the slab, sometimes even requesting they go back to the kitchen to ask for something rawer. It was a little while after that, he stopped calling or texting me. I’m ashamed now that I thought it was another woman (well he did have a crush on Beyoncé!) but it seemed to make more sense than to think my flaxen haired Adonis, my “Thor”, who was amazing enough to go to battle with my Elders to date… and after all we done gone through to get away from the white man! But it seemed to make more sense to believe that, than to believe he was dead.
Social Distancing had begun by then. Half of us didn’t even know what it meant. I thought it meant stay in my house and call my boyfriend, not go over there because he was my boyfriend. But everyone had their own interpretation. So that’s why the parks and the beaches were so full of folks once they weren’t allowed to go to work. And in the end, that’s why so many died.
I want to go to church. My granny would want me to do that. That’s how she raised me. I want to go someplace to pray. To have someone pray over me. To take the Sacraments. To be blessed with Holy Water, to partake of Jesus’ body and blood, to do something holy that might cleanse me enough to make it through whatever this is.
The streets are quiet, except for an occasional car. I sit on my porch and say out loud to the passing cars, “Are they going to the store? There’s no food there!”
First it was the toilet paper, then the sanitizer. But CNN and FOX kept promising there was not shortage of food. So why are the shelves bare? Why are the supermarkets even open? Most of the checkers are dead. That little guy, the one with Down syndrome, he was the only one who gave me hope. But even he stopped smiling when we couldn’t touch each other anymore, not even for a high five or a fist bump. And then he wasn’t around anymore. I hope he’s home safe.
They must have passes from the government. That’s the way anyone can be out in the street. And of course, only folks who can’t get one seems to be people of color. Just like during slave days. Can’t believe history actually does repeat itself. That we don’t seem to learn anything.
While looking for my Juneteenth tee shirt to wear to the celebration today in MLK Plaza, I found this! It’s been a few years since I wrote in this journal. Surprised I even found it. So much has happened, most of it so fast I couldn’t have kept track of it anyway.
The neighborhood. It looks the same, but it’s not. There’s no television show, no movie where I don’t see a reflection of myself, of my walnut skin, my nappy hair. The stores downtown and in the mall are all owned and run by us. We can yell at the movie screen and no one tells us to shut up. All of the radio stations play music that we know, music that comes from us. We are not afraid of the streets. It’s like Harlem in the old days that the old folks used to talk about. Like the old Compton. Like their old Newark. Like Africa before the Diaspora.
We fight only with each other. The way our ancestors said it used to be, long, long time ago.
We call it Pan-Africa after The Rain. The rain that washed over the Earth and washed away the plague, the virus, whatever it was. And after that…
The white people—all over the world?
They were gone.
Copyright Cynthia Robinson Young 2020