Anyone who knew Martha, a proper church-going woman, would have been stunned if they’d seen her at the HEB super market that day: matted hair, smeared lipstick, pantyhose slouched around her ankles with runs up both legs. She wiped her nose several times on the arm of her pink wool blazer, raised the crowbar over her head and struck.
The day before, smoky clouds puffed out of the trees surrounding her Texas Hill Country home. And then it started. Convulsive sneezing that brought her to her knees, fountains gushed from her nose, and an angry itch pricked the roof of her mouth, her throat, her eyes.
This was unlike anything she’d experienced in her 60 plus years. It was biological warfare, no doubt anthrax.
Martha desperately groped for her supply of antihistamines, the oblong dark pink pills. With shaky hands, she jabbed and stabbed at the blister pack with a butcher knife and finally got the little pink hope into her mouth.
She sprawled on her bed and held a damp cloth over her face, afraid to breathe. She imagined little devil anthrax viciously attacking the inside of her head with barbed spears.
The phone on the nightstand interrupted her nightmare. Could it be a public service announcement of a terrorist attack, instructions on what to do, where to go? She picked up, sneezed into the receiver, and clutched her streaming nose with the end of her monogrammed sheet.
“Is this Martha? Do I hear a tiny touch of Cedar Fever?” Sue Ellen from next door gleefully chirped. “Welcome to January in Texas.” Martha sneezed again. “You need Zyrtec, Z-Y-R-T-E-C. It’s the only thing that works. Get it at the HEB supermarket.”
Martha snorted a thank you very much and hung up the phone.
Ignorant Texans, she thought. Martha had corrected Sue Ellen and others in the politest of terms, but they insisted on calling a juniper a cedar. Flagrantly.
The phone rang again. Martha croaked hello.
“You sound awful” It was her little sister, formerly Ellen now “Chandra”, a spiritual healer living in California.
“Allergies,” Martha said.
“I’ve told you and told you. You’re repressed, Martha, which is why your body self-destructs with an over-the-top autoimmune attack. You insist on acting pleasant while you’re seething inside. It’s a wonder you haven’t given yourself cancer.”
Martha wished she could send Ellen a huge puff of juniper pollen through the phone. But said: “I’m fine, thank you very much.”
But, Martha was not fine. She thrashed and gasped for air throughout the night even after three times the recommended dose of the pink pill. Her sinuses, super-glued shut, created such a horrendous pressure she was no longer aware of anything but her head.
She had to do something. Vaguely she remembered Sue Ellen’s phone call and somehow made it to the HEB weaving over the center lane during one sneezing fit and onto the shoulder during the next.
An entire aisle in the store was overflowing with allergy remedies. Martha searched up and down with no success and then asked the clerk in the blue coat behind the pharmacy window for z-y-r-t-e-c. He reached behind him and presented her with a small cardboard box. She eagerly put her hand on the box, but he quickly snatched it back. “I need to see your driver’s license,” he said.
Martha, lacking the will to question, reached into her bag and then realized she’d left her billfold on her desk. Thank God she always carried a credit card in the zippered pocket. She showed the clerk the card and explained that she was suffering terribly, but had left her driver’s license home. She begged and offered to pay double or even triple for just one of the little white pills.
“Sorry, Ma’am. It’s the law. This here product is used to make illegal drugs.”
“But sir, can’t you see I’m a respectable woman? I’m in the choir of the United Methodist Church. My husband George is old, white, and bald.” Now she was shrieking. “Do you think I’m going to go home, put on my ruffled apron, and bake a batch of heroin with those tiny white pills?”
The next sneezing episode whip-lashed her entire body and something snapped. With wild, unblinking eyes she headed out to the trunk of her car.
The next thing she remembered: a heap of bloody blue coat on the floor, her pink-polished nails on the dull black crowbar.
Strangely, she no longer needed a pill; her head was clear; her allergy had vanished.
Gail Mary lives south of Austin in the Texas Hill Country and writes with the South Austin Writers Group, SAWG.