Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Under the Influenza

By Wayne Alan Brenner

JUNE 21, 1999:  How I love flu season! Flu season, that universally cherished time of year -- several times a year, even. When whatever bug that goes around comes around, visiting devastation on friend and foe alike, weakening the strong, liquefying the weak, making almost everyone you know as miserable as it's possible to be without being forced to parse Fran Drescher's audiotaped interpretation of The Complete Sartre, Volumes 1-12 ... When your fevered bed almost drowns you in a cloying sargasso of sweat-soaked sheets and clumps of wadded Kleenex ... When getting well enough to return to the soul-wrenching, mind-numbing boredom of your hated day job -- yes, when even that is a consummation devoutly to be wished ...

The flu, they call it. Influenza. And if it seems, in its relentless campaign of misery, somehow reminiscent of the Mafia (which it's much older and even more widespread than), that may be because its name originated in Italy's deep history. Influenza, right? Or, in English, influence. As in, the influence of the stars. Not stars like Oprah Winfrey or Mel Gibson or even Balthazar Getty, mind you; but stars like Rigel and Sirius and Proxima Centauri, stars like the distant, swirling balls of gas that form the constellations of the zodiac and so forth.

Back before folks knew of the cheerful millions of microbial pathogens constantly queuing up to add their pain and suffering to the family of man, it was believed that a person who exhibited the kinds of symptoms we've all come to know and despise was merely under the influence of a bad star. Celestial bodies many millions of light-years away, our Mediterranean progenitors reckoned, were actively affecting our own fleeting bags of meat and juice.

Got a runny nose, itchy throat, slight fever? Oops, Mercury must be rising through the house of Scorpio! Sneezing uncontrollably for no detectable reason? Acht, it's that pesky Jupiter leaving Sagittarius again! Feel like your head's filled with hot, wet sand and you have barely enough strength to work the VCR's remote control? Ho, ho! It's the Age of Aquarius! (Not that they had VCRs back in those days, of course. Even the Medicis weren't that clever.)

But influenza, regardless of its actual cause, is not precisely an Equal Opportunity Employer. Influenza is much worse for some people than it is for others. And I, unfortunately, am one of those Some People. If a flu bug hits me, that's it: Sure as taxes, I can kiss the next week or two goodbye. Since childhood there has been, it seems, a wide and garish banner draped across the otherwise unassuming entrance to my upper respiratory system. Welcome Flu! This banner chirrups, Come On In! And sure enough, quicker than shit through the proverbial goose, in move Mr. & Mrs. Influenza, with kids and pets and souvenirs from the Pleistocene, and immediately set up housekeeping right where my body normally prefers to breathe: Some quaintly printed draperies over my bronchial tubes, a cunning little barbecue pit right in the middle of my sinus cavity, perhaps even -- what the hell! -- an extra loft apartment in the middle ear for Uncle Streptococcus -- until the inside of my head and chest, now thoroughly infected, begins to experience a sensation that lets me know just what happened to that aforementioned goose shit. It's now bubbling and dripping and schlorping thickly around in what used to be clear passages between my ears, eyes, nose, and throat.

illustration by Danny Garrett

And by the fifth day, my skull is throbbing as if approaching critical mass, my throat's inside is like a stretch of raw bacon left to rot and fester on the interstate during Bike Week, and my nose is rehearsing its role as Source of the Amazon ... by the fifth day of this relentless purgatory, I conjure desperate cures. Drinking a half-gallon of orange juice (not from concentrate) and following immediately with a hearty swig of NyQuil, every hour on the hour. Snorting up both nostrils and down my searing throat enough salt water to fry every last slug in Seattle. I do what I can, people. Every trick in the book.

I attempt the Remedy of Rest, wherein I might somehow sleep the sickness right out of my body. I try The Positive Visualization, wherein I picture my immune system as the younger Jackie Chan using the Drunken Gods Style to kick the ass of all intruders. I have a go at Reverse Psychology, wherein I tell the germs in no uncertain terms that, shucks, I'm just gosh-darned pleased they've decided to honor me with a visit. And, finally, I end with The Complete Breakdown, wherein I clutch to my chest a Gideon Bible recently purloined from the Marriott and loudly beg the Lord for mercy.

And do you know what works?


The congestion continues, the pressure increases, the pain mounts. The horror, the horror.

And what's truly amazing -- and, yes, truly disgusting, too -- is the sheer amount of snot a nose can generate in such a short time. To struggle upward from a sweat-damp futon, to stumble into the bathroom in search of toilet paper to replace the Kleenex you've run out of, to blow your nose into that paper as if the wolf that huffs-and-puffs the Three Little Pigs had bionic lungs -- and you were that wolf. And to be almost in awe, then, of the sheer volume of thick, yellow, gelatinous dreck that's been sprayed from each beleaguered nostril (at least a cup-and-a-half, maybe two, give or take a spoonful). And then to trudge back to the bedroom, to fall upon the futon, to suffer there for no more than five minutes before returning to that double-ply roll. And, sweet mother of mercy! Out comes the same amount of snot! If not more so.

Where does it all come from, this vile, virulent mucous?

How does it regenerate so quickly?

How can I teach my bank account to do the same?

These are among the quandaries I ponder as I toss and turn in a flu-driven delirium; these are some of the questions that plague me as I begin to consider Spontaneous Human Combustion as a potentially less-grueling alternative. These questions and one other:

Why is it that, after I've endured two weeks of unabated misery and have finally decided, okay, I'll go to the clinic and get checked out and get a prescription, I'll shell out a bunch of bucks and buy some real drugs ... why is it that only then ... after I've spent close to $100 but before I've actually taken even the first dose of medicine ... why is it only then that I feel myself starting to recover?

Did I say that I love flu season? And did you, dear reader, suspect something other than sarcasm?

I hate flu season.

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