Flu Story

Paula Spurlin Paige

 

September 20, 1930
Atlanta

Dearest Alice,

The house is oddly quiet on this sunny afternoon; my little brother is napping, and Liza has just gone back to school, so I’m putting pen to paper before my visit here is over and I’m back in Washington with you again.

My dearest, I know that you think I’m a bit odd sometimes, when—as you put it after the party at Charlotte’s last month—“a veil of melancholy” seems to descend over me at the most inappropriate times. I have been thinking often about that, especially since I’ve been back in my mother’s house and have had time to meditate on the possible sources of my melancholia. My thoughts keep coming back to the Spanish flu epidemic here in Atlanta, twelve years ago. I’ve already told you about my childhood on the farm in Lowry, Georgia, and our migration to Atlanta, and now I’d like to tell you about those three weeks in October of 1918. I was a junior in high school; I had just begun to work that September for Meyer’s Pharmacy as a delivery boy after school. It was my first job; I was 16 years old. At first it was fun, especially after my grandfather gave me a motorcycle for my 16th birthday. I roared around the streets of Atlanta, taking medicines to the elderly and tonics to new mothers. Then all of a sudden, around the first of October, everything changed. The flu arrived in Atlanta.

“Put the drugs on the table in the hallway,” Mr. Meyer said, shaking an admonitory finger in my face. “If there’s no table or chair, put them beside the front door. Don’t even call out, because someone might come to fetch it, and you don’t want that.”

I shivered and went out into the mild late afternoon. In my pocket, I had a gauze mask for protection against the flu, such as people were wearing in the north, in Philadelphia and Boston. My mother had given it to me, but I wouldn’t put it on because it looked so strange. Besides, I wasn’t afraid of getting the flu: Dr. Brewster said it usually affected young children and young adults, rarely adolescents.

I got on my Harley. My first two deliveries that day were on Lucille Street and Marietta Street; we were living on Lucille at the time. So as I passed our house, I got to see Mother standing over the kitchen sink, preparing dinner. She wore a loose-fitting, blue housedress, and I noticed, in the gaslight, that there were strands of gray in her dark brown hair. An odd pang went through me.

In most of the houses where I went that first night, I didn’t encounter anyone, and I did exactly what Mr. Meyer had said. The door was ajar; I slipped in quietly and left the package on the hall table or chair. But in a few instances the noise of the Harley warned the inhabitants of my arrival. Then, I saw some scenes I would rather forget. In one house, the front door opened into the living room, where a young man in blue pajamas was lying on a daybed, talking deliriously. His skin was blue, too—really, Alice, quite blue. There was a fetid smell in the air, the smell, I supposed, of diseased lungs or their discharge. A gaunt older woman, who was probably his mother, took the package from me before I could retreat. She looked as though she could have been coming down with the flu herself. I babbled something and hurried off.

In another house, a girl came out whom I recognized from school. She looked about 13, and she reminded me of that painting we used to have of Renoir’s “Little Girl with a Watering Can,” except that she was older and wore a dirty pink dress instead of a pretty coat and hat. Her long blond hair hung around her smudged face.

“Both my pa and my ma are down with it,” she said softly, looking up at me with a forlorn expression. “Will I get it too?”

“No, it’s not likely.” I told her what the doctor had told me, realizing while I was speaking that she might still be considered a child. Perhaps I was too. My throat began to feel sore. And by the time I got back to the pharmacy, I was convinced that I’d developed a cough!

The next night, as I passed our house, my mother wasn’t in the kitchen. She was standing in the living room, talking to someone—to a big man with a bald head, in a brown suit! When I returned home I asked her who he was, trying to sound as though it were a casual question.

She looked at me in amusement. “Are you spying on me?” She smiled teasingly as she gazed up with her blue eyes, looking girlish in spite of those strands of gray in her hair.

I felt myself blush. “Of course not. You know I have deliveries to make around here.”

“I know that.” She smoothed my hair back from my forehead. “His name is Mr. Hoyt. He has a furniture store downtown.”

“Are we getting new furniture?”

“No, it was a social call. Mr. Hoyt goes to our church.” She blushed ever so slightly, and I realized then, as clearly as though she had spoken the words, that Mr. Hoyt was destined to be my stepfather. And I realized, too, that, unhappy as the thought made me, my mother was still young enough to be courted though she had been a widow for fourteen years.

She moved away from me then and went to the piano, where she began to play something by, I thought, Chopin. Why hadn’t I realized that she was lonely and that it was odd she hadn’t remarried after my father’s untimely death from pneumonia when I was two? I saw the fatigue on her brow as she leaned over the keys. She had made a precarious living for the two of us giving piano lessons ever since we’d moved to the city almost five years before. Now, I was doing my part, knowing that I was destined for law school after I finished high school—which also meant that she would be alone much of the time. Money, companionship: Why shouldn’t she marry Mr. Hoyt?

The next Sunday (just before the churches and schools were closed for the month), the pastor gave a fire-and-brimstone sermon about the flu being a plague sent by God to punish sinners, which made me very uncomfortable. He actually talked of profligate young people being skewered and bayoneted by devils in Hell, implying that it was the loose ways of today’s young people that explained their having been so oddly singled out by this disease! I couldn’t wait to leave, and I sat fidgeting and scowling. Already then, at 16, I had ceased to believe in the Baptists’ vision of Hell. Had it not been for my mother, I would have walked out. Then, no sooner had the final chords of “Rock of Ages” died away when Mr. Hoyt materialized in front of us, his plump face wreathed in smiles.

“I’m so glad to meet you, Henry,” he said, clasping my hand. I saw that he was as nervous as I was; his large, hairy hands were moist. “It’s good to meet such a serious young man.” I wondered if he meant I was not among those to be skewered in Hell. But, at least, shaking hands with him enabled me to avoid doing so with the pastor, who was just greeting my mother at the door.

“How do you do?” I couldn’t manage a smile. Mr. Hoyt was tall and a bit portly, and a few strands of gray hair were combed over his bald pate; he wore a starched collar and a pinstriped dark blue suit. He seemed to exude bourgeois respectability. Although I have since become very fond of my stepfather, at the time I was furious. Was my darling mother to be sacrificed to this porcine man? I looked at her unhappily as he made a brave attempt to engage me in conversation. Mother wore an ankle-length dress covered with pink flowers and a blue straw hat, which accentuated the blue of her eyes.

Outside, he proposed to take us home in his automobile, but I said firmly that we’d like to walk, and my mother (reluctantly, I thought) said no.

“He has a Buick,” my mother said wishfully, looking after him as he put on his hat and walked away.

“Mother!” I took her arm and pulled her along, feeling almost like Christ chasing the moneylenders out of the temple.

I thought of my handsome father, looking out from a photograph on my bureau taken shortly before he died, with a full head of dark hair and a moustache. He was only 28 at his death and was already a practicing lawyer and the mayor of Lowry. Mr. Hoyt, who must have been at least 45, certainly paled in comparison.

The next week, I continued to make my rounds in the crisp late afternoons and evenings of October. A constant smell of burnt linens scorched the air. On Monday, I read a headline that said that there had been two hundred deaths from the flu in Atlanta the week before, which was few compared to some cities. People were now required to post a black-and-white notice on their houses if there was flu inside. I began to wear my mask when I delivered to these houses.

The blonde from school, whose name was Irene, laughed when she saw me done up in such a way. I was glad to give her some diversion, for she had dark circles under her eyes.

“You need sleep,” I said.

“I can’t sleep,” she said. “All through the night, they cry out in the most frightening way. My mother is getting better, but my father …” There were tears in her eyes.

“You’ve got to get rest.”

“There’s no one else to nurse them. How can I rest?” She looked up at me sadly with her brown eyes.

“You’ve got to take care of yourself. If you’re worn out, you could get it too.”

“I thought you said …”

I didn’t tell her that I’d just seen a coffin not much longer than she was tall standing on the porch of a house on Pearl Street. I turned and fled.

I went back to check on her the next day though I had nothing to deliver. I knew when I saw her swollen red eyes that the worst had happened. Her father had died that morning; she was inconsolable.

“What will happen to us now? How will we live?”

I felt for this gentle girl who was seeing the horrors of life at such an early age.

“You’ve got to take one day at a time,” I told her. “Women can work too. My mother does.”

Irene stopped crying and looked curiously at me. “What does she do?”

“She gives piano lessons.”

“Oh, I’ve always wanted to play the piano.” Her tears welled up again. “And now I never will.”

“Of course you will. You’ll see.” I remembered my basket full of medicines that I still had to deliver. “And now I have to go, or I won’t have a job.”

I went out into the brisk late afternoon. There was a chill in the air and a constant smell of burnt linens: People were burning the bedclothes of the dead. Death seemed to have become pervasive and real that week in a way I had never known before. It was no longer abstract, the old skeleton with a sickle: it had become an almost tangible presence that rode with me on the Harley and the streetcar; hung over the patriotic speeches and antics of the Liberty Loan parade that they’d still managed to put on, flu or no flu; and huddled with me in bed at night. There was little diversion: The schools had closed, and I had no friends to fill the long, blue-skied fall days (people were avoiding one another, as indeed they had been told to do). Since I was free, I began to work longer hours at the pharmacy. I was happy to give my mother the few extra dollars I made at the end of the week.

I began to have apocalyptic dreams in which death stalked me and my mother and normal life turned suddenly treacherous and malevolent. In one, I came home to find my mother writhing on the sofa in the throes of the disease. As I was kneeling by her trying to give her some quinine water, Mr. Hoyt appeared, shouting that it was all my fault, that it was I who had brought the plague into the house. In another dream, a beautiful woman in a long, white gown was leading me through a country meadow by a brook, like the green pastures in the Psalm. At a certain point, she touched my shoulder with her thin, unearthly white hand, looked at me intently, and said quietly, “Henry, it is time to go.” I woke, shaking and dripping wet as though I, too, had the fever. It took me several minutes to stop shivering and to convince myself that I wasn’t sick and that it was a normal, sunny autumn morning with the clang of the streetcar in the distance and the smell of frying bacon drifting up from downstairs.

The only cheerful person around me in those days was Mother. She’d always seemed happy enough, but now there was a sort of quiet radiance about her in those autumn days. She didn’t look as careworn as before. The procession of children coming all day for lessons had slowed to a trickle because of the flu. She and Mr. Hoyt were courting now, and when I came back home, I would find them sitting on the porch swing on mild evenings with a decorous space between them and cookies or a piece of pie on the wicker table in front of them. As I approached through the dusk, they would be talking or laughing, and I grudgingly admired Mother’s animated face even as I thought how unseemly it was that they should be enjoying themselves while people were still dying on the next street.

“Henry, you poor boy,” she would say, getting up quickly. “You must be famished! Your supper’s on the stove. I’ll just heat it up for you.”

And I would let her wait on me even though I was perfectly capable of warming my own food, enjoying the fact that Mr. Hoyt would be left sitting there by himself in the dark.

One night, rather than following my mother into the kitchen, I decided to sit with him, in response to her plea to be more civil to the man.

“So your mother tells me you’d like to be a lawyer,” he said, balancing the remains of a piece of apple pie on his knee.

“Yes, sir,” I said. “I hope to attend the University of Georgia. That is, if we can find the money, or if I can get a scholarship.”

“I’m sure you will,” Mr. Hoyt said smoothly. “You seem to be a very capable young man indeed.”

There was a silence. “And brave,” he said, after a while.

“Brave?”

“Well, these deliveries you’re doing. Most lads would have quit when the influenza came.”

“I don’t think I’m in much danger. I wear a mask when I go into the flu houses. And our doctor said it doesn’t usually infect people my age.”

He shrugged. “All the same. Have you heard that silly song that girls are singing now while they jump rope?”

I shook my head.

“Let’s see. How does it go?

I had a little bird

And its name was Enza.

I opened the window

And in-flew-Enza.’

Isn’t that terrible? It seems so disrespectful.”

I laughed, in spite of myself. Mr. Hoyt looked surprised and, I suppose, disapproving.

“Children need something to laugh at,” I tried to explain. “First there’s the war, and so many of their fathers have gone to fight, and then comes this terrible disease …”

“I see.” He nodded his head in the darkness, the light from the living room illuminating his shiny bald head. “I hadn’t thought of that. You have a point.”

He really didn’t seem like such a bad fellow, I thought as I ate my fried chicken and hush puppies in the kitchen. Perhaps we might get along after all.

The next day, I stopped to see Irene. She wore a black dress with a white collar; she was sitting on an old brown sofa, and she looked desolate.

“Now we can’t even bury him. He’s in this horrible, horrible place where they’re storing people, and the smell …” She buried her face in her hands.

“Why can’t they bury him?”

She looked up at me with her teary brown eyes. “There’re no coffins, at least not for tall men. There’re too many dead, too fast.”

“Imagine that,” I said, because there was nothing else to say. “How’s your mother?”

“Better. She’s still in bed.”

“Do you have enough to eat, Irene?”

She nodded. “The Red Cross nurse was here yesterday. They’ve been very good. They’re tired out, poor women.”

“It’s going to get better. It can’t keep on like this.”

And it didn’t. By the next week, the first in November, people had stopped dying. Life began to return to normal, at least in Atlanta. I threw away my mask. The schools reopened. When the Armistice was signed on the 11th, there was giddy dancing in the streets, such as I have never seen before or since, except in France. I danced with Irene, who was still wearing her black dress but was beginning to smile. We bumped into a clown disguised as the Kaiser, whom people were beating with rubber bats. Even my mother was waltzing around with Peter Hoyt, who was surprisingly light on his feet for such a big man. Their banns were read in church beginning at Thanksgiving, and they were married at the start of the New Year.

Nearly two years later, I was in Regenstein’s, the old department store in Atlanta, shopping for handkerchiefs before I went off to the university. I looked up to see Irene behind the counter. She was a composed young lady now, although she couldn’t have been more than 16, still pale and wearing black, which I realized was the uniform of the salesladies at Regenstein’s.

“Henry,” she said, extending her hand. “How are you?”

“I’m well. I’m going off to Athens shortly, to law school.”

“That’s wonderful. I’m so happy for you.” She didn’t stop smiling, but her brown eyes were a trifle sad.

“You’re not in school?”

“No, I had to drop out last year. My mother’s a seamstress now, but there isn’t much money.”

“I’m sorry.” I tried to think of something else to say while I selected my handkerchiefs and stood waiting for my change to come down the pneumatic tube. All I could think of was how Fate had cast her down and let me prosper. Her father had died in a bizarre plague that had affected chiefly the young and strong, while my grandfather, living out his life on the farm in Lowry, was sending me to law school. Although we seemed to be more prosperous now since my mother had remarried and we’d moved to a bigger house, my sister Liza had been born the previous spring, so there still wasn’t much money left over to spend on my education.

“Good-bye,” I said to Irene, shaking her small white hand, wondering if I would ever see her again. Little did I know that my own life was about to be affected by the fickleness of Lady Luck: The cotton crop would fail in that fall of 1920 because of the boll weevil, and I would have to come home from law school at Thanksgiving since there was no more money to keep me there. I went back to my job at Meyer’s Pharmacy in order to save money for the next year, when I would enroll at Emory and live at home. I also got a job playing the drums at the Bijou Theatre, for Buster Keaton and Fatty Arbuckle movies and such. By then, I had lost interest in the law, so I studied liberal arts and ultimately majored in history, as you know.

At any rate, I am convinced that the fall of 1918, along with my lonely childhood on the farm in Lowry, has contributed to my rather serious, pessimistic temperament. Most people seem to have put the flu behind them, as I’m sure you have. Though it’s true that not as many people died in Atlanta as in most American cities, and that my family and most of my friends came through the epidemic unscathed, I have never since been able to shake the feeling that life is precarious and fleeting, something not to be taken lightly. Perhaps, on the other hand, it has also led ultimately to my love of history, to my fascination with the effect of chance events, whether natural or social or political, on the lives of men. I think you should know about all this before we are married.

So, my dear, when we’re laughing or dancing or making our terrible bathtub gin, and a shadow falls over me, you’ll know that “Enza has flown in” and that, sooner or later, he will go away again and we will be happy.

My visit here is drawing to a close, fortunately for my thesis. Liza is a lively, clever 10-year-old who always wants me to play jacks with her, and little James is a hellion. My mother and stepfather are well, but there is little money. No one is buying furniture now, and so my mother is starting to give piano lessons again. No one seems to have any money anywhere, except for the bootleggers!

I hope that you and your mother are well, and that your job isn’t too taxing. I think of you often, and look forward to seeing you in a few days.

All my love,

Henry

 

Paula is an Adjunct Professor Emerita of Romance Languages and Literatures at Wesleyan University. An emerging writer, she has recently published short stories on line in A Diverse Arts Project and Stirring. Another story, which was first runner-up for Red Hen Press’s Short Story Award in 2015, has just appeared in the 150th anniversary issue of Reed Magazine. One is also forthcoming in The Umbrella Factory Magazine.