I looked hideous, I know, enough to cause people to avert their gazes, or to cause parents to gather their children behind them protectively as I passed.
One lady crossed herself, her lips moving in silent prayer, as I stalked the pharmacy aisles in the grocery store. Another lady yipped in alarm and scuttled away, leaving a cart filled with a potential family meal — Ragu spaghetti sauce and two freshly baked baguettes — abandoned next to a display of high-protein, non-GMO, soy-free, artificially flavored vanilla milkshakes.
Seconds later, I was alone, having frightened away the last of the shoppers in that corner of the store.
But I didn’t care. I was miserable.
It began the day before with a tickle in my throat and a slight pressure behind my left eyeball. And, of course, just like any other self-respecting male who practices his God-given right to go through life pretending he is immune to such things as the common cold, I ignored the symptoms, as well as Love-Weasel’s continued advice to take pre-emptive measures.
“I’ll be fine in the morning,” I assured her.
“Suit yourself,” she responded, shrugging. “Don’t blame me if it gets worse.”
I couldn’t help but wonder as she walked away if she had gained some insight into my stubborn ways after 38 years of marriage, or maybe, just maybe, in her weird, womanly ways, knew something I didn’t know.
Not possible, I decided.
“I’ll be fine in the morning,” I repeated to myself.
I was not fine the next morning.
I awoke with the distinct impression that there was an adolescent warthog sitting on my chest, slobbering and grunting contentedly while restricting my breathing. My inner ears itched, my head pounded and when I swallowed, it felt as if a herd of pygmy porcupines were climbing down my throat backward.
I flailed away at the offending warthog but met no resistance. Forcing my gummy eyelids open, I realized, surprisingly, there was no pig upon my chest but, in fact, the obscene grunting and wet rattling were coming from deep within my own body, somewhere around my lungs.
I was sick.
Somehow, I rolled out of bed. Somehow, hunched over and feebly, I imagine, I made it into the bathroom. I weakly propped myself up against the sink and lifted my head.
As it so often is, Love-Weasel’s make-up mirror was extended on its metal arm out from the wall, in front of the main, big mirror, with the magnification side flipped over toward me. There was a huge, bald, big-headed, crusty-eyed troll leering back at me from that mirror. His skin was pale white behind splotches of red. Tiny, ugly green bubbles inflated, then deflated, at his nostrils with every ragged breath he drew. Then the ugly coughing — barking, really — began to be followed by disgusting things I dare not describe brought up from my lungs.
Gasping and moaning, I splashed water on my face, looked again into the mirror and sighed at the troll.
Against all reason, against all of my God-given male rights to pretend such things couldn’t be true, I decided, well, I decided I needed medication.
I don’t remember much about the one-mile drive to the grocery except it seemed more like a slow, tortuous trip to Memphis while under the influence of hallucinogenic mushrooms. That, or maybe being forced to sit and listen to one Taylor Swift song.
I do know I sat in the parking lot awhile while gathering strength and feeling sorry for myself before entering and standing beneath those harsh fluorescent lights. Scaring people away with my snorting and snuffling, I squinted at the fine print on the backs of all those supposedly miraculous, modern-day medications.
One promised effervescence and a delightful citrus flavor. Another warned, in intimidating blocky, black letters, not to operate heavy machinery after dosing myself. I gathered one box of each and then staggered to the front of the store to the self-checkout area. On my way there, I clawed at my back pocket and discovered, to my horror, that I had forgotten my wallet.
Moaning, I put the boxes on a nearby shelf and reached in my front pocket for my keys, resigning myself to that arduous trip home to get my wallet and then, if I had the strength, back again to the store. In that pocket, along with my keys, was a $10 bill. I moaned in relief. Almost wept, I think. I retrieved the boxes and then shuffled up to one of the vacant check-outs and scanned my purchases.
The words “wait for attendant” flashed up on the machine.
A kid probably 40 years younger than me approached and asked to see some identification.
“What for?” I croaked.
The kid said I have to show proof of age before I can buy that particular cold remedy.
“What for?” I croaked again.
The kid appeared to get flustered and told me he doesn’t really know why but that he can’t sell it to me without some form of identification.
As I tried to explain to him that I forgot my driver’s license, but I have money — I show him the $10 bill as proof — he was joined by another attendant, a woman not much older than him but who is cloaked in that aura of mid-level management authority that seems to be so prevalent in all retail establishments these days.
She began to wield her power.
She called me “sir,” but in a tone of voice that led me to believe I don’t deserve the title and told me I’ll have to come back with proof of age.
“It’s the law,” she intoned.
“Oh, for God’s sake!” came a voice from behind me. “The man’s obviously sick and it’s for damned sure he’s not a child! Let him get his medicine and get out of here!”
It’s a man about 80 years old. He locked eyes with the young attendant. She clenched her jaw, biting back a response, I suppose, but punched a few buttons on the machine. It took my money and I collected my change.
I nodded my thanks to the man. He nodded back.
Score one for the old guys.