The Germ turns
Hollis the Mountain Man confronts his winter bug
by Sally Cragin
Illustration by Lennie Peterson
Susan Sontag opines illness is a metaphor, but for Hollis the Mountain Man it's
multiple imagery. Every winter, he manages to delay what he regards as his
"seasonal flu" using Vitamin C, lots of fluids, and good luck. "It's like
hearing the Jehovah's Witnesses trundling up to the door, and, just as they're
about to knock, you pull the shades down, put out the lights, and stop the
whistling teakettle in the same moment," he tells Delia Ellis Bell, the Partial
Yankee (there was a questionable great-great grandmother) one afternoon at
Happy's Coffee & Qwik-stop (30 kinds of doughnuts, 20 kinds of lottery
tickets, one kind of coffee).
"But then . . ." he says sadly, actually pronouncing the words as
"Buh . . ."
For once, he's not warming his honker over a steaming mug of Happy's java
that's as thick and as iridescent as crankcase oil. For the past two weeks,
Hollis has been fighting the demon mother of all colds. Now he's finally well
enough to leave the Mountain Lair to tell the tale. $erena the Waitress has
thoughtfully provided him with a mug of herbal tea (she's been making her own
blends from her garden, as if she doesn't have enough to do).
Delia nods sympathetically. She's relentlessly hale and hearty, which somehow
seems inappropriate given her tall and slight frame, pasty white skin, and
stick-straight hair. And she's grateful Hollis is well enough to again share a
doughnut and a jaw at Happy's. Whitey Leblanc had shown the occasional glimmer
of personality -- his brief fascination with Protestant theology, for example.
But it's not nearly enough to hold her interest, so Hollis's reemergence is
"I never get sick in November or in December," Hollis says. "I think fitting in
illness to all the other holiday preparations -- not that I participate, mind
you -- is just difficult. It's after Mason and Sunshine and the Mountain
Brats come gamboling down from Cow Hampshire and spread their germs on every
doorknob and cabinet edge that I get sick. Takes about two weeks for that stuff
to incubate, too."
Delia snorts. High-school biology was a long time ago, but she retains shreds
of information from her various temp jobs. (For example, despite lacking a
nursing degree, she spent a season helping administer flu shots at the local
drugstore -- trust her, you don't want to know which one.) "Hollis," she says.
"Most bugs can't last that long. I think you got your flu from something
But Hollis, whose eustachian tubes are as crammed as the crème-horns in
the glass-fronted case are, continues. "Now this started as a cold. I
was changing the oil in the truck up at the Tarbox garage when I started to
feel a creakiness in my own joints. Thought I couldn't continue. At
least Hasky let me put the truck on a lift once they got Judge Cronin's Caddy
out the door." Tarbox Automotive ("Collisions? A Specialty") is Hollis's
closest neighbor, and it would be closer still if he let them park their cars
on the long-disputed no-man's-land between them.
Delia orders a refill of her coffee. She's beginning to feel a bit logy. "When
did Hasky start letting you use the lift again?" she asks. Decades before,
there had been an unfortunate situation with a Charger Hollis had intended to
buy. He had cranked the car up on the lift to inspect it, but its underside --
which the irate seller had failed to mention -- was reduced to a lattice work
of rust. Just seconds after the junker was hoisted it came crashing down around
them. No sale, thus no lift privileges.
"Aw, I could use it whendebah I want," he insists.
Delia's quietly amused by Hollis's thorough denial, she thinks to herself.
"Note to self," she privately muses, "for best-selling, self-help book, What
Males Can Teach Us. Chapter three: `Rise Above It.' Males will never admit
to feuding, fussing, or otherwise having personal problems with members of
their species. It would, after all, make them seem weak and emotional." She
shakes her head wondering what subject Hollis has moved on to.
"Ennybay," Hollis continues. "So's I go to bed for the next day and feel fine.
I couldn't think of a reason not to go to work, so's I go off on my delivery
route. But by the last stop of the day, I know I'm not going to make it
back. So I end up parking the Tri'd 'N Tru truck with Myrt at the Rod 'N Reel,
drink a ton of coffee, and stagger home. One of the guys brought my truck down
the next day."
"Wow," says Delia. "The anatomy of illness in Tritown couldn't be beat with
that tale," she says. "Not only have you martyred yourself twice, but
you got the Tarboxes, Myrt, and one of your fellow chip-wranglers to do
you favors without seeming to ask for help. Fifty points to Hollis!"
Hollis grins and wipes his nose on his sleeve. "That's it, isn't it?" he says.
"How to get help without asking for it. Notice I never called you," he
continues. "And the fact that you chose to bring me homemade soup, graham
crackers, orange juice, and all those weird herb pills was entirely your own
"Well," says Delia philosophically. "`That's just my nature,' as the scorpion
says to the frog that was carrying it across the river. When the frog asks why
the scorpion plunges the tip of its poisonous stinger into the frog's flank,
assuring both of their doom . . ."
Hollis squints. Delia is looking a little more wan than usual, and the static
electricity around her head is making her hair rise in strange, sudden arcs.
"Delia, you sure you aren't coming down with anything?" he asks.
"Nah," she says. "But if I am, why don't you follow me home and see if you can
stop by the store. I'll be needing a whole chicken, a couple of heads of
broccoli, and a bag of those oranges. The nice, plump Valencias, not those hard
little cueballs." Then she sneezes.
DEAR FELLOW DENIZENS of Tritown, for the first time in seven years (now who's a
martyr, sez Delia), I'll be taking a brief sabbatical from this column as Chuck
Warner and I are getting married this month. I'll be back by the spring
equinox, by which point Hollis and Delia will be over their colds and planning
that most resistible of warm-weather diversions: spring cleaning.
Sally Cragin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.