In honour of the birthday of Dr. Jonas Salk, born October 28, 1914, here is the short story “Salk and Sabin” from my book, Key in Lock. The narrator is Irene, manager-in-all-but-name of Marjorie’s Lingerie.
Salk and Sabin
When the phone rings I’m at home, it’s nine o’clock and I am at the height of what my best friend Doreen Lockhart calls A Worry Event. Tonight the star of the show is the H1N1 flu. First of all I don’t know how a pandemic is different from an epidemic, which is the word I grew up with, the one they used when I was a little girl growing up in the fifties and polio was putting kids into iron lungs or leg braces or killing them, until Jonas Salk put on his thinking cap and came up with that dead virus vaccine of his and even tested it on his own family to show he meant business, and then we all lined up for shots and were spared. Thank you Doctor Salk. So is this swine flu thing worth more or less worry or the same amount as if the problem were polio? For an Olympic-level worrier like me it is important to know how much nerve-juice to pour into any one problem. Otherwise, I may run out, and what then? Also, if I’ve got the bug, I don’t want to go to work and pass it on to my customers at Marjorie’s Lingerie. And I return to my original question–do I have symptoms or not? The stiffness in my lower back that I became aware of an hour ago…I wonder if that counts as muscle pain. Could it be that I am coming down with it, but have such a mild case I don’t know it, and have been accidentally transmitting it to unsuspecting underwear purchasers? My customer Barbara Sawchuk’s daughter Tracey came down with the swine flu at the very end of her pregnancy and developed breathing problems and had to be put on a ventilator; Barbara tells me that is the modern version of an iron lung. They delivered the baby by caesarean and he lived but Tracey may or may not make it.
What if a pregnant woman walks into Marjorie’s Lingerie and I give her the swine flu because, for example, I have not washed my hands properly. These days I always count to a hundred and twenty after soaping up, and I scrub like there’s no tomorrow, but maybe that’s not enough. Last night the TV news anchor was talking about this epidemic–excuse me, pandemic–and he said, “So how much should you worry?” but then did not answer his own question or find anyone else who could answer it.
Anyway here I am in the middle of this worrypalooza when, like I said, the phone rings and who should it be but my best friend Doreen.
“Have you seen today’s paper?” she asks.
“The Sun or the Herald?”
“Oh, you know how I feel about that paper. It’s more for educated people like you.”
“Irene, give yourself some credit. We’re talking about a daily rag, not the collected works of Friedrich Hegel.”
“Okayokay. So what’s in the Globe today?”
“Well, this woman from Chicago has invented a bra that’s dual purpose.”
“Every bra serves a dual purpose. Left and right.”
“True enough. Okay then, this bra is multipurpose.”
She explains and when our conversation ends, I call my friend Julie on her cell phone right away.
“Can you meet me at the Bean Wave in half an hour?” I ask.
“I’m hanging there now,” she says. “Come on by.”
I walk to the Bean Wave as fast as my sixty-two year old legs will carry me, so that I can get onto one of the computers. Oh, I know I should stop resisting, go for it, buy my own computer. But I enjoy not having e-mail and twitter; I feel no need to be plugged into the whole universe every second. If I had to take care of answering and sending messages constantly, when would I work or walk? When would I think? No, I prefer to head over to my favourite little Internet café when the fancy strikes me. It’s just on Seventeenth Avenue, an easy walk from my apartment. Who can’t use a bit of extra exercise? And Seventeenth Avenue is well-lit even in the evening, so that I don’t have to worry too hard, as I cross the street, about being hit by drivers whose night vision is no better than mine.
Julie has her own little laptop, which her mother bought her it for her last year in a fit of guilt over not being a good parent. But she still works at the Bean Wave part time to help her pay her steep university tuition and she is often here off hours to socialize. Usually when we get together, that’s where.
“Hey, Irene,” she says, and I get my usual warm hug from her, which I hope will not to lead to either of us getting sick with the dread virus. She is in her early twenties and the way this bug seems to work, if she picks it up, she is more likely than a lot of other people to get super sick, maybe even die.
“Hi, sweetie,” I say, but within a second I am sitting down at a computer, in a rush to log in; this is the way I get when the urge comes upon me to do research.
It doesn’t take long for me to find what I want, and I am able to get much more detail than Doreen had found in that small article in the Globe. A scientist living in Chicago has invented a new kind of brassiere with special features like a filter device and a breathing device attached to each cup. Well, let’s say terrorists attack or your house catches on fire or you find yourself in the middle of a toxic cloud, and only a gas mask will save you. You reach under your blouse and unsnap the specially equipped bra, breaking it into two. You quickly snap a cup over your head, securing it with what used to be a bra strap. And there you go, you’ve got your gas mask on. Then, because you’re not the type who panics in an emergency, you calmly hand the other cup to the guy next to you, who sees what you have accomplished and dons his mask, too . One bra, two lives saved.
“What’s wrong?” Julie asks. “You’ve got that tortured look.”
“Well, it’s just, I can’t figure out exactly how this bra mask works; the websites are all a bit different from each other. Some of them talk about two sets of cups and each cup is detachable, which would make for a four-cupped bra. I don’t really get that.”
“Inner and outer sections, perhaps?” Julie says.
“That must be it. It’s bugging me that I don’t get it. Why am I so dense? Why isn’t it clear to me how this thing works?”
“Maybe it’s not you. Maybe the explanations themselves are unclear.”
“No, I think I’m just missing it. Design isn’t really my strong point. But the inventor does want to bring it to market it as soon as she can.”
“If I know you, you’ll see to it that Marjorie’s Lingerie is the first lingerie retailer in Canada to stock it.”
“Maybe we ought to try it out. It might come in handy on those windy Calgary days when you feel like you are walking around in a dust storm.”
All the way home I am thinking about the bra mask and its usefulness and how maybe it would come in handy right now with this swine flu all around us. How much more comfortable would a person be in an attractive, well made face garment than in one of those ugly paper, staples and elastic band contraptions that pass for masks today? In a solid foundation mask, a person in a dire emergency would know that she looked good. And everyone knows that when you are confident about your appearance, you are that much more likely to think creatively, and succeed in doing whatever you must to get yourself out of that bad situation.
By the time I get home I have convinced myself that the answer to containing swine flu is to get bra masks on the mass market as fast as possible. I go to bed but sleep is out of the question. I am thinking how, now that quite a few of our regulars at Marjorie’s Lingerie are getting older, they could probably use some CPR and general first aid training. Why couldn’t we bring in emergency medical training guys to teach them, and tie in the classes with a bra mask promo? But maybe the classes would be come so popular we would have people lining up outside the store to get in and we’d have to set up priority lists like they are doing with the flu vaccine. Of course the bra masks would become wildly popular. Nobody would want to take the classes unless they could also be guaranteed the bra masks. We would become unable to meet the demand as it arose. And then what would happen to the reputation of Marjorie’s Lingerie, that I have spent thirty-two years building up? We would become known as the lingerie store that does not plan, the lingerie store that does not deliver on its promises. Not only that, but what if someone else designed a bra mask of their own to rival the original inventors? Of course that would happen. But would the competition among manufacturers become vicious? Oh I am in a fever of worry now, in which I start muddling up the things that need worrying about. It’s not the bra mask I should be devoting my worry too now; it’s the flu shots. Because back when I was a kid, Dr. Sabin came out with another polio vaccine, a live virus one, and that was distributed a few years after Dr. Salk’s went into circulation, and although Salk was okay with Sabin, Sabin hated Salk. Wouldn’t it be awful if that happened with the swine flu, if two different kinds came out and the inventors came into conflict with each other, even though ultimately everyone wanted the same thing, to make people better? By now I am so worked up I am in my middle of the night cycle of drinking chamomile tea, almost falling asleep, discovering anew angle and fixating, almost falling asleep again, needing a bathroom break, having more tea et cetera.
When I get to Marjorie’s Lingerie the next morning, though, I have strangely high energy and optimism, when you consider that I had hardly slept or had a peaceful moment all night long. And before we have been open even half an hour, Barbara Sawchuk comes in, to let me know that Tracey is in danger; she beat that flu, and she and the baby will leave hospital tomorrow.
“I prayed to Saint Martin and in his compassion, he came through for me,” she says.
“Thank God,” I say. “But why Saint Martin in particular?”
“Oh well, he’s big in France and I’m French on my mother’s side, so I grew up admiring him and as a kid I couldn’t hear that cloak story enough times.”
“How does it go?”
“Well, Martin is travelling on horseback when he comes across a naked pauper who is freezing. He dismounts, cuts his cozy cloak down the centre, and throws half of it over the poor man’s shoulders. Then he rides off wearing the other half.”
“Beautiful,” I say. “Same principle as the bra mask.”
“What’s that?” she asks. But she is too excited to wait for an answer and goes back to talking about her family.
So Barbara believes St. Martin intervened, and the doctors probably think modern medicine made the difference for Tracey, but I know better. I know I worried her well.