My sickness started with shots of trunk warmed whiskey before a show. I had tickets to Phantogram in Austin and was excited to see them. It was December and though I was living in the trunk of my car this was Texas and life was fine. I was far from the frozen hell that is North Dakota. In place of hibernation I spent my days in city parks and wooded trails. I’d been here more than a month and had over a hundred nights to go. Nearly half a year spent living in a twenty year old car in Texas. It wasn’t perfect but seemed a solid plan.
The night of the concert I parked a couple blocks from the venue aside a construction lot. The plan was to crash here after the show. I’d car camped hundreds of times so had a good eye for safe spots. This one fit the bill with little risk of residents or ramblers giving my car a too close inspection. I told myself I wouldn’t drink because I wanted to hike the next morning. Once parked I changed my mind. I poured whiskey to a dirty thermos then downed enough to buzz me up but not bring me there. I didn’t need to be drunk but wanted an enhancement.
After the concert I decided to dig a dumpster for food. My show buzz carried over and I didn’t care if anyone saw me. Just a human raccoon in search of its score. The dumpster diet. I started with the pizza place by the venue but their dumpster lay hollow to the bottom. Damn. I decided to make a night of it so walked to my car and swallowed dirty shots of whiskey. Once the amber hit blood and brain I made way to the main drag. I ambled down a street of fast food and strip malls thinking I’d buy a gut bomb. In the McDonald’s lot sat a barely sipped Bud Light. I sucked it down then stomped the can.
I spotted a pizza place connected to a phone store in a strip mall parking lot. People idled outside despite the late hour. Out back I found their dumpster. It was my Mecca. The mother lode of trash. My treasure was thus: clear plastic bags of pizza, breadsticks, and pasta. Heavy sacks of hot loot. I jumped my abdomen to the dumpster ledge, tilted down, and started to feast. I inhaled pieces of pizza, fistfuls of pasta, the doughy goodness of breadsticks both savory and sweet. A car pulled up and sat watching the show but I paid no mind.
I grabbed a box out the dumpster that belonged to the cell store and filled it with food. After scarfing my fill I took the chest of treasures back to the car. Upon arrival I assessed my box and saw it had meat and pineapple pieces I didn’t want. I sailed them over the plastic construction fence, joyfully exclaiming “I don’t want this fucking pizza!” I wasn’t so much drunk as I was high on discovery. By the time I was done I’d thrown six or seven slices at their half built apartment. In the car I prepped for bed then crawled to the trunk via an unfolded backseat. I passed out with pizza breath.
I did jack the next day and went to bed queasy, wondering if I ate too much grease. The next day I ran errands then went to the library to kill time reading. There was another show at the same venue and I had tickets. At the library I started feeling icky. I didn’t know it but my body was now a furnace with a devil at the dial. By evening I was sweltering and knew I couldn’t make the show. I sold my ticket then drove to the venue because the construction site was a good place to park. I made camp across the street in case they solved the pizza puzzle and learned the culprit was me. By bedtime the heat had paired with nausea and now both were ramping up. It seemed I had the flu or a virus. Maybe from the pizza, maybe from someone at the show. I prepped for bed then crawled to the trunk. I wouldn’t emerge for over forty hours.
That night I suffered the worst fever of my life. I lay in the trunk atop a pile of blankets. The Austin overnights were mild and required little cover. I went to bed with a sheet but when the sweltering came I ripped both it and my clothes off me. In my tight trunk this turned into a chore. Still I boiled. I’d never felt so internally hot in my life. I lay still as any movement spiked the heat and nausea. I ran my fan but it did little. My blankets sopped wet with sweat. I recognized the symptoms of flu as I’d picked it up the previous winter. It only lasted a day but kept me up all night. It came with hot vomit and diarrhea, followed by bouts of clutching my stomach on the bathroom floor. I hoped this was different. I didn’t want to shit myself or squat naked in a thin row row of trees. Somehow my body kept it in.
My water sat in the front seat and I needed to retrieve it. Slowly I dressed then wiggled out the trunk. I was hit with a hard one-two of spins and nausea. Started sweating just from sitting up. It took ten minutes to collect myself and transfer from trunk to front. Once there I sat in pain, so hot and still getting sicker. I cranked the seat, rolled the window, and hoped the air might cool me. People walked past as I lay there listless. The breeze did jack so I planned a return to the trunk. I’d strip to boxers, run the fan, and see what happened.
After an endless amount of time gathering power I opened the driver door. Stepping out I almost fell to the cement. It was only five feet to the rear of my car but I pressed against it to keep from toppling. It took a minute to take the steps. I pissed in the street, a cool breeze running across my cock. I saw people down the way and knew I needed to get in the trunk for fear of being spotted. I keyed it open, pulled off my clothes, then tried jumping in feet first. I bashed my knee to the bumper and felt a lightning strike of pain. With a second attempt I forced my body to the trunk and slammed the lid atop me. The light of night disappeared. There was only darkness.
The exertion and knee pain caused my eyes to well. I started crying, so dizzy and pained that I mumbled for God to make it stop. I’m not a believer but in this moment it was instinct. My body boiled. Stomach bit. The banged knee sent sharp blasts throughout. I’d never been in such pain in my life. Not when I cracked a kneecap after crashing my bike into a tractor. Not when an airbag blasted my face after running a car into a ditch. I just wanted to be rescued. For anything to make this go away. But the mumbles to above sat ignored. The pain didn’t stop. That first night brought the worst fever of my life but by dawn it broke. Not a full break but enough to no longer feel like Satan had forced his fiery cock inside me. When my body changed from furnace to flame I felt relief. I was still hurt, still horrible, but no longer in hell.
A couple days before this I’d learned that my grandma in North Dakota was in decline. She was 96 and having a bowel blockage. This left her unable to eat. If nothing changed it’d spell her end. She’d been downhill since fall and it seemed this was it. Now in the trunk I was getting texts that Grandma may only have a couple days left. I knew I needed to make an emergency trip home to North Dakota but didn’t know how that’d happen. I couldn’t sit up for more than a few seconds without feeling like passing out. North Dakota was 20 hours and 1200 miles away.
I spent all day and then another night in the trunk. Come morning I didn’t know if I’d slept. It was 76 degrees and there was no way to stay cool. I decided to book a hotel, that I would never get better in a locked up trunk. I looked at places on my phone and found a cheap one in the direction of home. It took the better part of an hour but I was able to get myself dressed, to my driver’s seat, and with it enough to drive. I made way for Target to buy Tylenol and 7-UP to get better. Whenever sick as a kid Grandma took me in. She let me sip 7-UP and watch cartoons at her place. These simple cures worked in the past so why not now. In the Target lot it took forty minutes to gather the power to stand. I got my meds plus some veggies in hopes I could stomach them later. It’d been two days since my last nutrition.
The drive to the hotel was hard but I was spurred with the hope that a bed would make me better. I pulled up to the lot and was greeted by a man with facial tattoos. I’d chosen the cheapest shitbox listed. $35 a night and free wi-fi. I leaned back and rested, needing another twenty to gather the strength to get my body out the car. I leaned on the lobby desk, pale and sweating, thinking I must look like someone drying out or coming off heroin. I got a room for the night and hoped I’d have the power to eat, sleep, then depart the next day.
In the room I dropped everything on the bed followed by my body. I didn’t have the energy to fill water or take off clothes. I lay for hours ’til I was so hot I forced myself to strip naked. Come evening I found the energy to watch Youtube. I was feeling better, the nausea and pain coming in waves but now akin to the wake of a pontoon rather than a speedboat. I was sleepy which was a blessing. I didn’t think I’d slept since this started. There were passages of unaccounted time but they were short and infrequent. I didn’t know if I’d slept or was simply stuck between worlds. I closed my eyes but nothing happened. My body, so sick and exhausted, refused to slow down. Instead it revved up.
I started having hallucinations. Songs weaved in and out then melted into audio from movies or unknown voices. When I closed my eyes they filled with shapes, colors, and pulsing fractals. Random cartoons and naked bodies. This assault was unceasing, the noise in my head never ending. I knew it wasn’t real but that didn’t stop it from feeling so. It felt like I had three boomboxes pressed to my head with each on a different station. I was overcome with physical and mental pain. It was as if there were teeth twisting and biting at my insides. To sit up was to cull sweat, induce nausea. To lay down was to spark the inner pain, crank all knobs on head noise.
The next morning I showered, taking baby steps so as to not fall and crack my face. I still couldn’t eat and had only been able to handle a few sips of water. I needed more time to recover. With great care I walked to the lobby and rented another night. Upon return I crumpled atop my bed naked. The hallucinations stopped but I didn’t feel sleepy. My brain was on but no longer screaming.
This second day went the same as the first. I was better but the pain and sickness were never far from the surface. They rose up any time I tried to do too much like put on socks or sip water. Night came and again I saw no sleep. I was up all night with brain and body sizzling. Painful noise and visions burnt themselves into my being. The next morning there was loud sex and screaming from other guests. Though I hadn’t slept I knew it was time to go.
After multiple stops I reached the Texas/Oklahoma border and spent all night in a semi-awake state. I oscillated from hot to cold. From with the world to far from it. The next day I was well enough to put in big hours. It was one of many false respites but for now I thought I was healing. That this was more behind me than ahead. I tried eating but everything tasted like chemicals. I couldn’t eat but I could drive. I made it to a North Dakota rest stop in the middle of the night. For the first time in close to a week I got real sleep. Not a lot but enough to help heal. I left the next morning and was home to my parents’ farm by afternoon. My sickness started the evening of December 15th. It was now December 21st.
The last time I left home was the day after the election. I headed to Texas on the heels of a huge shift in the world. Now I was returning to yet another alteration. No more Grandma. Soon she’d be gone. Really she already was. I’d visited in September, her last good month. We sat in her apartment and filled the time with small talk and TV. Then in October she had a series of little strokes. They shot holes through her memory and stole blood from her brain. She couldn’t remember the apartment that’d been home for more than three years. On my next visit she remarked to me that I should explore the building. “It’s really quite the place.” In reality I’d been there dozens of times over the course of three years. We knew her life was coming to a close and that was fine. In fact it was good.
Grandma was 96 and ready to go. Her husband of over sixty years passed in 2001. In 2013 she left their homestead. On the farm she lived alone, still independent into her 90s. She had a bird feeder outside the living room, loaves of bread she baked herself. She had the land where she’d built a life and raised five kids. Now she was in a nursing home next to the interstate. It had a view of a field and farmyard but they weren’t the same. It wasn’t the life she was meant for. So when she got sick, when we saw an end in sight, it was a relief. She told my father that she didn’t know why someone would want to live forever. That we all have a time to go and that’s a good thing. Grandma welcomed the end of her existence on earth. To her she’d reunite with her husband in heaven. The thought brought her peace. I hoped in my end time that I too would enter death with such grace.
Despite exhaustion I went to Grandma the day after my return. She was weak but knew me. Her appearance was shocking, more corpse than person with an emaciated frame. Always short and slight she now weighed next to nothing. Her glasses were off, teeth taken out. She wore a hospital gown over what little was left of her body. I hugged her and immediately welled with tears. I knew she was dying but hadn’t expected a glimpse to the future. Family was gathered including my parents and cousins. We sat and talked in the living room. Grandma lay in her chair, unable to utter more than affirmations. It was hard to see her like this. When I hugged her bye she said she loved me. The words were barely a whisper.
Grandma lived longer than expected. She was supposed to pass when I was in Texas but held on. I spent entire days at home resting, doing nothing but sitting in bed. In her home, surrounded by family, Grandma did the same. The next time I saw her, the final time, she looked better. Her teeth were in, glasses on. She was alert and almost with it. This was one of her good days. We knew things were close but it was nice to see some semblance of the woman I knew. The one who let my sister and I bike over as kids for cookies, cartoons, and homemade bread. The one who made us tapes of Andy Griffith because she knew we loved it. The one who took care of me when I was sick on school days. She was almost gone but there was a little of her left.
Each day I found myself capable of more. I didn’t just lay in bed from morning to night. Could eat though had to force it. My sleep was decent. I was no longer burning up or always dizzy. Then Christmas Eve while standing in church my head started throbbing. After Mass I went to a family gathering with my brain banging and full of pain. Over the evening I tripped into another pit of sickness. It got to the point I couldn’t look up or speak to anyone. Once again I was back to being bedridden. It seemed this sickness would never end.
On the 29th the phone rang at two in the morning. I knew that meant Grandma passed. I went to my parents’ room to discuss her death. To hug my dad as he’d just lost his last parent. It was a relief. She hadn’t been living. Just fading away. The person I said goodbye to was only an echo. Everyone felt better when it happened. We wished it’d come sooner.
On December 30th my family walked the frozen river in our front yard. This was the first time I’d stepped more than fifty feet in two weeks. My niece and nephews pulled a sled of snow and dye down the way, leaving colored patches like breadcrumbs. I walked slow, ever conscious of my energy, my breathing, of how each step felt. This was my post-sick world. A world in which I thought these things. Where I was aware of my body’s limits, of how little I could do when incapacitated. It took another ten days for me to fully return to normal, to have my energy and appetite. It lasted more than three weeks but the nightmare ended. I woke to the world. Started eating and gaining weight. I’d walk the frozen river and feel vital, the cold air billowing through my lungs like a life force. Alive once more.
A week after her passing we held the services for Grandma. My dad called it a celebration. A celebration of Grandma’s life and all the people that knew her. Everyone had a good memory to share. I spoke with family I hadn’t seen in years. People turned out en masse to say goodbye. Someone put together a slideshow of her life, stretching from youth, to marriage, to her golden years with Grandpa. Grandma had a tough life when she was younger. It was filled with hard labor, little money, and an abusive, alcoholic father. At fourteen she left home to live with and work for another family. To go from that to this, with family and friends aside her in death, was quite the transformation. It was the culmination of a quiet and loving life. She was the ribbon that strung us together.
My sickness, my losing my grandma, was one of the most intense and memorable times of my existence. I didn’t gain a grand appreciation for life but learned what it was like to be sick. How it incapacitates you, grinds you down to nothing. How it brings you to the point where you’re no longer living. Where survival is a fever dream of listlessness and pain. I made it through but Grandma didn’t. I hoped when my day came it’d hit quick. I was ever thankful of my good health, of how great I had it. I’d never seen the flip side of life. Never been so sick. The peek gave perspective but I didn’t need another look. If only I hadn’t eaten the dumpster pizza. But I did. And so it happened.
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