Updated: May 7, 2020
By Jie Wu
COVID-19 tales from Murray, Kentucky
My story is about the three strangers I met in the summer of 2009 when the fallout from the financial crisis was spreading like wildfire. Jobs were hard to come by even for native Americans. But I received a job offer at Washington State University after I had finished a one-year Optional Practical Training in Ohio. I hit the road, unsettled but excited.
I camped at a state park in eastern Kansas my first night on the road. I entered the bright, clean campsite in the embrace of tall trees and noticed two tents nearby. I pitched my tent and crawled in to take a rest. After a while, I saw a man’s face appear through the window screen. The man had a handlebar moustache and a baseball cap. He introduced himself as Mike and asked if I’d like to come and have dinner. Warm-hearted campers had invited me for meals in the past, so I said yes. Still, I carried pepper spray, just in case.
Mike was grilling something in the campsite’s barbecue pit. He was wiry and wore a frayed shirt and denim shorts. As I got close, two dogs tied to a nearby tree began barking. A woman on a canvas chair raised her head sharply, tossing back her long hair. She lifted a cigarette from the corner of her mouth and let out a cloud of smoke.
“Hi,” She said.
I soon learned she was Mike’s wife. Her name was Morrigan. Next to her sat the third stranger: a man in his fifties named Rick. Rick was hefty, with a mop of scruffy, gray hair. He greeted me shyly.
Behind them stood two sun-bleached tents. The one on the right was covered by a sheet of black plastic. They had all kinds of stuff piled up across a few picnic tables and chairs. There were two large coolers, an old-fashioned coffee maker, a small blackened radio, bottles of cooking oil and spices, napkins, cutlery trays, cigarette cases, two bags of potatoes, half a bag of bread, and half a dozen plates.
I had a rough idea what it all meant, but I didn’t quite know how to phrase the question. "Are you..." I started.
Mike interrupted and said frankly, "We’re living here. We don't have a home."
"We lost our jobs recently,” Morrigan began. “Mike used to work in construction, but his entire department was laid off this spring. I used to be a gardener. Now that everyone’s unemployed, they have to do their own yard work. Mike gets 1,300 dollars of unemployment a month. I pick up odd jobs here and there, but money isn’t steady. Our apartment cost eight hundred dollars a month." She exhaled again. “We thought, what the heck, let’s go camping. We’ll just stay in a tent. Camping is free, but we’re only allowed to stay 14 days at a time."
I noticed she had three cats tied to her chair.
“The managers come over and ask us how long we’ve stayed and how much longer we want to,” Mike said.
“But they’re good people. They won’t kick us out."
"Will your tents leak when it rains?" I asked.
"Of course,” Mike laughed as if I’d asked the most obvious question in the world. “Rick's tent is so broken, a breeze’ll take it down."
Dinner was ready. Mike grabbed four tin foil wraps out of the fire pit with a pair of tongs and handed them out. It was getting dark. I opened my wrap and saw a mixture of carrots, beans and potatoes. Rick poured a large glass of soda for me. Mike placed salt and pepper shakers in front of us. I added a lot of salt, but it still tasted bland.
We spoke casually, but the conversation never drifted far from the economy. “According to the radio, we’ve almost hit rock bottom and should be recovering soon. Plus, the president announced a plan to stimulate the economy. I hope it works,” Mike said, shaking his head. “But I’m sixty and she’s fifty-six. Even if the economy does pick back up, it won’t easy to find jobs.”
“I’m fifty-seven already," Morrigan said.
"What? Fifty-seven? Did you lie to me when we got married?"
We all laughed. The bonfire and lights attracted a lot of moths. Eyes shining with the reflection of the bonfire, one of the cats jumped excitedly, trying to catch the moths. Mike told me that it had been over three months since they abandoned their home, and in that time, they’d experienced all sorts of discomfort, from dampness and high heat to swarms of mosquitoes.
“But you make friends,” He said cheerfully, pointing to Rick. "Our family’s the two of us and three cats, and Rick is single with two dogs. He just found temporary work on a construction site, and I’m happy for him. Today I saw you get out of your car and pitch your tent, and I thought, ‘maybe I’ll invite her to dinner with us.’’’
I felt the pepper spray in my pocket, feeling funny.
Life isn’t sweet, and that’s why we need dessert. Rick brought out a mixed nut pie and shared with everyone. The sky was now completely dark, and the moon had just risen. Its brightness was blocked by dense foliage. Spots of light danced on the ground. Before I said goodbye, Mike invited me for breakfast tomorrow. Morrigan pulled a solar lamp out of the ground and handed it to me: "Take this! There are no lights in the bathroom. It's scary in there at night."
The next morning, I got up at five o'clock when the birds began singing. I found Mike sitting down by the lake. He poured me a large cup of bitter coffee.
"I come here every day, just to fish and listen to the radio. The lake’s clean, and the fish are good.” He sounded calm, but I could hear a tinge of sadness in his voice. I knew he’d rather be going to work.
Morrigan drove up in a big pickup truck loaded with twigs. It turned out they went to the woods every day and picked up fallen branches for firewood. That’s how they’d cooked our dinner last night. She took four large metal buckets out of the car, each big for at least five gallons of water.
“The lake water is so clean!" She exclaimed. “I use it to wash my hair. Takes at least two buckets a day. Can you believe it?" Her golden-brown hair lay untamed across her shoulders. As she spoke, she lit another cigarette. Her deeply tanned skin glistened.
When I said goodbye at half past six, Morrigan fumbled around and dug out a worn-out envelope and a pen. "We want to make sure you get to Washington safely.” She wrote her contact information on the envelope. “When you get to toll road 70, remember to take the right fork. It’ll only cost you a dollar. Don’t take the left fork. It’s newly constructed and a lot more expensive. Do you have a dollar? Let me give you one."
I hurriedly told her I had one. She stood up, held one out to me, and said in a very serious tone: "Take it. You just graduated and you have no money, I know!"
I firmly refused and she finally gave up. I started the car and watched in the rearview mirror as the three people waving got smaller and smaller.
We may belong to different worlds, but in that park, on that warm evening and the morning that followed, our lives intersected inexplicably, and we had an extraordinary time with each other. They’d lost their jobs and their future was uncertain, but that didn’t stop them from being their normal selves. They were still generous, friendly, sympathetic, and supportive. I was on my way to start a new job, but my future was full of unknowns too. After meeting them and witnessing the beauty of human kindness, I felt I had renewed strength to go on.
My thoughts drifted back to a small town in Ohio where I’d lived for less than a year. As early as ten years ago, Ohio's economic growth had started to slow as American manufacturing declined. On September 14 of last year, the tail of Typhoon Ike swept across Ohio, tearing up the land, and leaving thousands of households without water and power. The next morning, as people were still under the spell of fear, the news of the stock market crash hit. The people I’d met there were the same good people as I’d met at the campground. When I said goodbye, they loaded up my car with books, cards, and gifts. Despite their hardships, they gave me snacks, tea, toothpaste, and laundry powder in case I needed them on the road. I was just a foreigner who had lived there for less than a year. I’d probably never see them again.
America will not fall apart as long as the most ordinary people treat each other with sincerity, care, and confidence. In the most difficult of times in the past, I have never worried, nor have I lost faith in this land. When COVID-19 hit America, I thought of that night at the campground again, and I told myself:
Jie Wu was born and raised in Beijing, China. She came to the U.S. in 2003 and is now teaching at a state university in the South.