Famous last words

SUNDAY — I try to avoid overtly telling the same stories a second or third time in the zine, but with my boring life sometimes it's unavoidable.

Like, today there was too much drizzle to sell sacrilegious fish on the Avenue, so I stayed home and tried to sleep away this looming flu or cold or whatever's been eating at me for a week. And I'm certain I've already lived and written this exact same day.

Again I'm drinking plenty of fluids, and making shuttle runs to the john so frequently it seems pointless to flush.

This bug isn't as ferocious as the one I fought off in December — I've only puked twice today — but the aches and sneezes and runny nose and general grogginess is a rerun, and jeez I'd like to change the channel.

♦ ♦ ♦  

MONDAY — Feeling frigid, I slept in a sweater and two pair of pants with the space heater blasting, and woke up hours too early on Monday, sweating and shivering.

Yesterday I wrote, "This bug isn't as ferocious as the one I fought off in December" — famous last words, almost mine.

♦ ♦ ♦  

By the time the alarm went off, white crud was clinging to my tongue, and if I was still working at Macy's I would've called in sick, but there's no sick leave at Black Sheets.

Besides, they need me there — if I'm gone, who'll take out the trash? Who'll scrub the sink? Who'll vacuum the floor? And who'll pay my rent? I really need the money, so I put on two sweaters, four socks, clicked the space heater off for the first time in twenty hours, and BARTed to Frisco.

At the magazine, I advised Bill and Steve to keep away from me, and then tried to do my job. For half an hour I worked all bundled up and freezing, and then the sweats started and I stripped down to a t-shirt and pants, and then the chills returned so I got double-dressed again. The whole day, I was alternating between goose bumps and drenched with sweat.

Then I came home and slept twelve hours, and without exaggerating even a smidge, I have never been closer to death than I was on Tuesday the 27th.

♦ ♦ ♦  

TUESDAY — It was damned awful, all day. I slipped in and out of delirium, sweating then shivering, coughing for ten minutes at a time but never finding any phlegm, staggering to the john and back over and over, wheezing like a rusty hinge with every breath, scraping white stuff off my tongue and piling it on the bedstand, and my head was full of bizarre fluffy nightmares whenever I could sleep.

I remember watching TV in my room, and seeing a basketball game where one player tackled another and he shattered to pieces. The murderer hid between channels and ran away behind an Alka-Seltzer commercial. What's weirdest about that, of course, is that I don't have a television. 

Sleep drowned me and then I couldn't sleep, the dreams made no sense and awake even less, and the only coherent thought I remember is thinking, if I die, who'll clean out the piles of trash and dirty clothes and old zines littered all over my bedroom floor? And will Sarah-Katherine be sad, just a little?

♦ ♦ ♦  

By late afternoon, my whole body was caked with thick, viscous sweat, and I was burning with fever, afraid to sleep because not waking up seemed like a serious possibility.

This was no normal flu and I knew it, even barely conscious, so I stumbled to the phone and called the Berkeley Free Clinic — the only medical care I can afford.

Probably I should've called a week earlier, but until the day-long dementia I kept telling myself it would pass. And being an anarchist and atheist, I'd always rather avoid going to a clinic that's partially funded by the government and housed in the basement of a church. I'm uncomfortable taking charity — my dad taught us that it's better to do without than to beg. 

But I was truly desperate, Dad.

I called the clinic at 5:45, and I wanted to kiss the man on the phone who told me to be there at 7:00. And then, of course, walking through the bitter wind and mild drizzle to the clinic, the fever broke and by the time I walked in they could've convinced me it was just a touch of a cold.

Soon as I'd filled out the short questionnaire, I was ushered in to see a woman named Diana. She's not a health care professional, she's a health care amateur.

That's how it works at the Free Clinic — it's staffed with volunteers who've passed a few months of training, so they're probably about as knowledgeable an an EMT.

Hell, maybe they are EMTs. I don't know or care. Diana knows more about human biology and health than I know, and that's enough.

She examined me and asked endless questions about my medical history and my family's medical history and my sex habits, eating habits, sleeping habits, on and on. Certain answers seemed to trigger a subset of further questions, till we'd spent almost an hour talking about me. Man, you can dream about getting that much time from a doctor or nurse, but it'll never happen.

I was impressed, and I was 102.6°, which is a lifetime high for me. I'd been alternately burning and freezing all day, but at the clinic I felt so much better that the temperature really surprised me. 102° when I felt almost OK? I wonder what the reading would've been a few hours earlier, when I was melting on my mattress?

Diana said she was pretty sure it was a strep, and maybe more, and then she disappeared down a hallway. A few minutes later she returned with the clinic's one and only doctor, for a cursory review of her conclusions.

Even the doctor seemed nice. Is that allowed? The two of them talked medical lingo, then stepped out, and Diana returned with a big bottle of erythromycin. Drugs. Oh, yay.

I took the first few dose of the antibiotic there at the clinic, and on the walk home my fever started raging again. That's a good thing, I told myself — it means the reinforcements have arrived, and the war is raging between the good medicine and the bad bacteria, right?

♦ ♦ ♦  

WEDNESDAY — Being a private man when I'm not spilling my soul into this zine, I hadn't told Judith or any of my flatmates I was sick, but Judith heard me hacking and puking and brought some cough syrup. Thank you, my friend.

Cough drops are enough when you're hoarse, but hoarse was the day before yesterday. The coughing had only earned me a sore neck and chest, never any of the thick yellow goop I knew was inside me. Swallowing the cough syrup, though, some of the hacking finally became productive, not merely painful.

Took an antibiotic and slept for hours again, and when my eyes opened the world felt a little better, but a piece of cardboard was in my hand. It was an amazingly mushy post card I'd written to Sarah-Katherine during my mental discombobulation, maybe the day before or the day before that. I don't even remember writing it, but it's my handwriting so I must've.

Reading it made me cry. Good thing I was too weak to take it to the mailbox, or she'd have read too much of me, things I'd never say when I'm coherent.

For the diary, I'll sum it up even briefer than the card:

Once, for a few days scattered across a few months, there was a woman who liked me, and I liked her. And then of course, I fucked everything up.

From Pathetic Life #21
Sunday - Thursday,
February 25-29, 1996

Addendum, 2023: The Berkeley Free Clinic is still there, saving people's health and lives and asking nothing in return.

A few years after these events, they were as marvelous and heroic when my wife was sick as they'd been for me, and ever since, we've been sending them twenty bucks a month. It's not much, but they're legendary, and it's a debt I can never repay.

This is an entry retyped from an on-paper zine I wrote many years ago, called Pathetic Life. The opinions stated were my opinions then, but might not be my opinions now. Also, I said and did some disgusting things, so parental guidance is advised.

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