Lorrie Moore

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Face Time

Moore, Lorrie

Last Updated: Oct-28-2020

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story


In the lonely glow of her computer, Lorrie Moore’s protagonist FaceTimes her father, who is quarantined in a hospital after contracting the COVID-19 virus following hip surgery. She explains to him the circumstances of the pandemic and names the celebrities and political personages who have tested positive for the virus. Befuddled by hydroxychloroquine, her father passes in and out of hallucination and lucid conversation but jokes when he can despite the side-effects of the “bullshit malaria drugs.” The counterpoint to her sadness for her father is revulsion for the “ghastly” new rituals and habits of indefinite quarantine—the performative antics of Zoom concerts, YouTube binges, bizarre insurance commercials, Bible readings, and social distancing. She is appalled, too, by “well-to-do white families in large suburban homes” that claim “the pandemic for themselves,” families that sanitize grocery bags and order from Amazon and Grubhub. Intermingled with the numbing ennui of quarantine is disgust for the consumerism that thoughtlessly implicates human life, the front-line workers who make these convenient services possible. The protagonist and her sisters coax the hospital staff to comfort their father, play his requested Brahms symphony (any one of the four will do), and give him lemonade, but the “visored hazmatted nurses dressed like beekeepers” are overwhelmed and appear unapproachable, even threatening.

These FaceTime calls become increasingly bewildering to the father. The protagonist’s sister invites her to join a disjointed three-way FaceTime, but the call is interrupted by one of the father’s hydroxychloroquine-induced hallucinations. With “a howl of anguish” and “grimace with agony and sorrow,” he utters German expressions recalled from his war days. The protagonist realizes that her father is “imagining he was a prisoner of war; that was what it must have felt to him—the cruel isolation, the medicine, the lights, the strange machines all around him.” Like the ebbing signal of a satellite in some faraway orbit, contact with her father grows tenuous. For the next FaceTime call, a nurse says her father is asleep. The following day, she waits again for a scheduled FaceTime chat. She phones the hospital to inquire about her father’s missed call but is put on hold, then disconnected. Later, at midnight, the hospital calls to inform her that her father has died.

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A mother (termed Mother in the story) discovers a blood clot in her young son's diaper and wonders "so what is this thing, startling against the white diaper, like a tiny mouse heart packed in snow?" This discovery leads to a diagnosis of Wilms' tumor--a childhood malignancy of the kidney, and surgery to remove the diseased kidney.The parents are thrust into a new world--the world of pediatric oncology ("peed onk") and meet the Surgeon, the Oncologist, and the other anxious parents waiting in the Tiny Tim Lounge of the pediatric ward. Everyone is named by their relationship to the Mother or by their profession--Baby, Husband, Anesthesiologist.The reader is privy to the inner thoughts of the Mother--her anger, denial, protective instincts and dark ironic vision. The Mother is also a writer and advised to take notes of this odyssey in case they need money to pay the medical costs. She feels alien to the culture of the pediatric ward--only her artsy friends understand her hell. Notes one (Green Hair) "Everyone's so friendly here. Is there someone in this place who isn't doing all this airy, scripted optimism--or are people like that the only people here?"When the Mother is given the option of no post-operative chemotherapy for Baby, the Mother grabs the chance to leave the hospital, clutching Baby, and says "I never want to see any of these people again." The piece ends on the rhetorical and ironic question--where's the money for these notes, for the story?

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