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Day 12-13: A Good Turn Goes Sour in Brooklyn

I’m sorry I didn’t post last night. I won’t lapse again, as long as I’m healthy enough to type and the Internet is up to carrying it. Even in a blackout, I could post by candlelight with a charged laptop; my DSL would function like a telephone landline, albeit without a router.

I went on a mercy mission to someone I’ve known all my life. He’s a bit older than me. Without dwelling on the past, I’ll explain that he used to have a lot of problems, which he solved by stumbling into New York’s post-9/11 land rush. He found better highs peddling overpriced apartments than he’d ever nailed on the street. For a while, he was so manic his family suspected he’d gone back to dealing drugs after graduating rehab with multiple ‘degrees.’

He turned out to be much better at legitimate commerce than he was at mooching and scamming. You can’t snort real estate. Within a year he was dressing up to feed underweight models. He endorsed the kind of ‘conservatism’ that opposes state power except when you can use the government to confiscate people’s property. He thought Goldwater was a health drink with bling.

IMAGINE MEETING ME AT NIGHT....My old friend took to lecturing me about the slimmer salary I was making in my own profession. He shrugged off my warnings about a real estate bubble and for a long time he was right. Not even a vertical interest rate chart could dampen demand for his services. When subprime collapsed, he laughed. He wouldn’t have sold to those people anyway. He could move any high-end property. When foreigners stopped bidding, he caught a bounce doubling down on foreclosed homes in selected neighborhoods.

Having survived swine flu, the guy now sees the avian variety as a buy opportunity. He aims to grab some pricey apartments whose owners leave in a bag.

Even the carnage in the stock market fails to quell his bullishness. Bottom feeders, he says, will soon bid prices back up, as they did after 9/11. “Demand is demand,” he grunts, “and I am da man.” You get dizzy rolling your eyes around him. He doesn’t even notice.

My old friend has always been the biggest H5N1 skeptic I know. To start with, anything he doesn’t want to believe is plain wrong, and he couldn’t see how a plague would facilitate his flight to respectability. When the first New Yorkers caught bird flu, he ignored it. When it spread through the city, he blamed me.

Then he stopped calling or emailing. Though my girlfriend savored the hiatus (she despises him), I’ve been trying to reach him for a week.

Yesterday he phoned to ask if I’d bring him some masks, gloves, and goggles. He was more frightened to leave his apartment on the Brooklyn waterfront than I was to leave mine. He wanted a lot of gear for his girlfriend and their closest friends. As a courtesy, of course. He’s like family to me, as I guess they are to him.

I donned my protective gear and set out for the condo he acquired four months ago, a small space in a refurbished factory with a world-class view of downtown Manhattan.

Putting on Airs, Underground

On the subway, masked riders were trying to keep distant from those whose faces and hands were naked. Some can’t afford to take precautions. Do they resent their shrouded neighbors? Class divisions grow painfully awkward when they become matters of life and death.

I saw parents and children wearing masks like the ones I sell, others with paper masks, and some with nothing. On one platform stood a young couple with a toddler; each wore paper towels fastened with rubber bands around their heads. They knew and they cared. I wish their attitude could protect them.

I had to look away, clutching my big opaque bag of masks and gloves and goggles. I had even packed children’s masks for my friend’s girlfriend’s sister’s kids.

Adults avoided one another’s glances in those swaying cars. Only the children looked around. It was sad to behold their eyes; kids are rarely fooled. The defenseless ones knew the others had something they can’t have, something more important than a branded shoe. They looked about curiously, politely, helplessly. I wondered if the masked tykes had drippy noses, too. I wanted to make a speech.

There was nothing to say that hasn’t been said before. Nothing I believe could have made much difference to them now, on that train.

I wish I had quietly taken the rubber-band family aside and given them some gear. When the heart calls, it’s best to answer quickly. Or risk hating yourself all night. (In the morning, Ayn Rand will tell you it’s all right.)

I reached the condo late. Hard to imagine, but subway service has degenerated.

A House Infested I Couldn’t Stand

My friend’s girlfriend had been replaced. The one I knew worked for AmEx in human relations or resources or whatever they called personnel last month. She was pretty in a non-descript way (blonde-descript?), wore khakis, and left all controversy to my friend. I don’t think I’d have recognized her next to me on the subway.

The woman who greeted me at the door was memorable. She was younger, dark-haired, clad in a minimal lace bra. She sustained a pair of his boxers with willpower and cheek. A huge ink angel adorned her naked back, tattooed wing tips dipping to a place I tried not to stare at.

She had never heard of me or my charitable mission, though I’m sure she’s heard of American Express. My friend had gone out. She hoped he’d return soon. After about an hour, I realized she didn’t know him very well.

I regretted having taken off my gear. I couldn’t find soap in the bathroom. The kitchen was full of moldy cardboard takeout cartons and bugs you can see without a microscope.

My friend’s cell phone wouldn’t answer, but I couldn’t leave. Worried, I watched TV from a hard designer stool while she sprawled and slept fitfully on the giant leather sofa. She sniffled a lot. He never returned. At sunrise, I left the bag and went home.

As I scoured my flesh of microbes, scrubbing myself raw, I heard an eerie wailing. It wasn’t my cat. He was crouched on his sill in the bedroom, listening warily to what must have been a woman down the block, moaning in musical scales.

My girlfriend explained she’s heard it several times, always around 8 a.m.—unless I’m snoring. (A lie!) She’s lacked sympathy of late. This morning she was icy. Still is.

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