The 'Martian Death Flu' Inches From Carpet, Molecules Hit Eyeballs

Posted: April 02, 1986

We have the flu. I don't know if this particular strain has an official name, but if it does, it must be something like "Martian Death Flu." You may have had it yourself. The main symptom is that you wish you had another setting on your electric blanket, up past HIGH, that said ELECTROCUTION.

Another symptom is that you cease brushing your teeth, because (a) your teeth hurt, and (b) you lack the strength. Midway through the brushing process, you'd have to lie in front of the sink to rest for a couple of hours, and rivulets of toothpaste foam would dribble sideways out of your mouth, eventually hardening into crusty little toothpaste stalagmites that would bond your head permanently to the bathroom floor, which is how the police would find you.

You know the kind of flu I'm talking about.

I spend a lot of time lying very still, thinking flu-related thoughts. One insight I have had is that all this time, scientists have been telling us the truth: Air really is made up of tiny objects called "molecules." I know this because I can feel them banging against my body. There are billions and billions and billions of them, but if I concentrate, I can detect each individually, striking my body, especially my eyeballs, at speeds upwards of 100,000 miles per hour. If I try to escape by pulling the blanket over my face, they attack my hair, which has become almost as sensitive as my teeth.

There has been a mound of blankets on my wife's side of the bed for several days now, absolutely motionless except that it makes occasional efforts to spit into a Kleenex. I think it might be my wife, but the only way to tell for sure would be to prod it, which I wouldn't do even if I had the strength, because if it turned out that it was my wife, and she were alive, and I prodded her, it would kill her.

Me, I am leading a more active lifestyle. Three or four times a day, I attempt to crawl to the bathroom. Unfortunately this is a distance of nearly 15 feet, with a great many air molecules en route, so at about the halfway point, I usually decide to stop and get myself into the fetal position and hope for nuclear war. Instead, I get Earnest. Earnest is our dog. She senses instantly that something is wrong, and, guided by that timeless and unerring nurturing instinct all female dogs have, she tries to lick my ears off.

For my son, Robert, this is proving to be the high point of his entire life to date. He has had his pajamas on for two, maybe three days now. He has the sense of joyful independence a 5-year-old gets when he suddenly realizes that he could be operating an acetylene torch in the coat closet, and neither parent would have the strength to object. He has been foraging for his own food, which means his diet consists entirely of "food" substances that are advertised only on Saturday-morning cartoon shows; substances that are the color of jukebox lights, and for legal reasons, have their names spelled wrong, as in New Creemy Chok-'n'-Cheez Lumps o' Froot ("part of this complete breakfast").

Crawling around, my face inches from the carpet, I sometimes encounter traces of colorful wrappers Robert has torn from these substances, and dropped on the floor, where Earnest, always on patrol, has found them and chewed them into spit-covered wads. I am reassured by this. It means they are both eating.

The Martian Death Flu has not been an entirely bad thing. Since I cannot work, or move, or think, I have been able to spend more Quality Time with Robert, to come up with creative learning activities we can enjoy and share together. Today, for example, I taught him, as my father had taught me, how to make an embarrassing noise with your hands. Then we shot rubber bands at the contestants on "Divorce Court." Then, just in case some parts of our brains were still alive, we watched professional bowling. Here's what televised professional bowling sounds like when you have the flu:

PLAY-BY-PLAY MAN: He left the 10-pin, Bob.

COLOR COMMENTATOR: Yes, Bill. He failed to knock it down.

PLAY-BY-PLAY MAN: It's still standing up.

COLOR COMMENTATOR: Yes. Now he must try to knock it down.

PLAY-BY-PLAY MAN: You mean the 10-pin, Bob?

The day just flew by. Soon it was 3:30 p.m., time to crawl back through the air molecules to the bedroom, check on my wife or whoever that is, and turn in for the night.

Earnest was waiting about halfway down the hall.

"Look at this," the police will say, when they find me. "His ears are missing."

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