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Winter/Spring 2017

Our Secret Infection


by Russell Helms


Doug scolded himself for being early. The small, square office smelled of manila folders. A narrow tinted window ran from floor to ceiling. Doug settled into a striped chair, bumping his shin on a table covered with Good Housekeeping magazines. The yellowish carpet felt tight beneath his shoes. He peeled an address label and rolled the gummy adhesive into a ball.

In her car, Glenelle imagined ways she could bring it up. Her brother had “you know whatted,” or so she had gathered one evening long ago amid shouting from his bedroom. He had never married and always seemed so aloof. He lived in apartments, didn’t like tomatoes, and drove a car made from a kit. The gate lifted and she pulled into the parking deck. At two minutes til two, Glenelle pecked on the office door. Doug frowned and brought his index fingers together. She tried the knob and peeked in. She smiled when she saw him. He pinched the knot of his red tie.

“Are we early?” she said. She’d had her brown curly hair done and there was just a hint of glitter in her eye shadow. She wore a turquoise pants suit and black loafers. No matter how hard he tried, Doug knew that her head was too small and that others must think the same. It might not have been so bad, but there was the underbite as well.

“Early? Not that I know of,” he said. His knee hurt and he uncrossed his legs.

They sat for three minutes and McIntyre’s door opened. Glenelle stared as a woman with a tissue and red eyes thanked him. He lay his hand on her padded shoulder, as if holding her to the ground, and then set her free at the door like a balloon.

“You are the Barbers?” Clifford McIntyre put his hand out to Doug and nodded to Glenelle. McIntyre wore knit slacks and a light blue shirt without a tie. His silvering hair looked thick, each strand the diameter of a pencil lead.

“Are we on time?” said Glenelle.

“Right on time,” said McIntyre. He extended his hand as a directional arrow to his office.

“Do you need a break?” said Glenelle. “You know, before we get started?” Doug formed his lips into an O, hoping to commiserate with McIntyre.

“Actually, I was going to get a sip of water, but you can have a seat and I’ll be right back. Can I get you anything? Hot tea?”

“We’re fine,” said Doug. He didn’t care for hot tea.

“We’re fine,” said Glenelle. She gazed through the slim tinted window at the traffic below, crawling from one red light to the next. “From the street, these windows look like mirrors,” she said to no one in particular.

A bookcase and a small cloth couch sat on one side of the coffee table with a faux-leather swivel chair on the other. A small desk and filing cabinet filled a corner. Chilled air poured through a yellowed plastic grid in the ceiling. Doug could tell it needed cleaning, that touching the fuzzy gray film would explode it into a million ragged chunks of dust loaded with bacteria of the worst kind.

Glenelle sat in the middle of the loveseat straddling the two cushions, which became a shallow V. Doug sat down on her right and the V became a lazy backwards L. He nudged her with his hip and she scooted to the other cushion.

“This is a nice office,” she said and placed her purse under the glass coffee table.

“It’s a bank building,” said Doug. He squinted at a needlework thing framed on the wall. He couldn’t read it. He scratched his thigh through his slacks and Glenelle put her hand on top of his.

“Stop scratching,” she said.

Doug worked in human resources at the hospital and had told her about the terrible problem the hospital was having with MRSA—methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus when she looked it up. He’d suggested she write a children’s book about it, maybe a young adult novel.

“You’re getting Lauren, right?” said Doug. Lauren was Doug’s 16-year-old daughter, adopted by Glenelle.

“Honey, we talked about that last night,” said Glenelle. Lauren’s bras were two cup sizes larger than Glenelle’s.

“Okay, just in case, just to be sure,” said Doug.

McIntyre floated into the office. “Everyone okay with us today?”

“Well,” said Doug. He didn’t want to speak for everyone.

“Well, aside from the traffic,” said Glenelle, leaning forward as McIntyre lowered into his swivel chair. “Which reminds me, how do we go about payments. We can pay each visit, right?”

Doug wanted to touch his tie again.

“After each session, a check is fine. I’ve never fooled with credit cards. The fees and so on,” said McIntyre. His wife had said he could make more money if he took credit cards, especially Visa, because everyone had a Visa. She’d just gone to the mailbox and held up two unsolicited credit card applications as proof.

“Thank you so much.” Glenelle also wanted to verify that each 45-minute session was $95, but decided to wait.

“Well I do know a little bit about why you’re here, having spoken with you, Glenelle…” reaching back for the yellow pad on his desk “… about your marriage to… Doug… and how that seems to be coming along fine, to use your words, but that you just want to… Well tell me again.” He paused and gave each a distinct look, like choosing a new toothbrush.

Doug put his hand on his leg and pressed his fingertips over the itch.

“I think to refresh our marriage, our relationship,” said Glenelle. “To just talk about some things. I mean we push each other’s buttons.” She moved her hand toward his hand. “Don’t scratch that, Doug.” She looked at McIntyre. “He’s got me terrified of meersa.”

Doug could tell McIntyre needed help. “Mersa. Drug-resistant bacteria in the hospital that’s cropping up… MRSA, mersa for short.”

“That’s why I avoid that sort of thing,” said McIntyre.

Neither Doug nor Glenelle knew what he meant.

“So the marriage is working. But you just want to make sure,” said McIntyre.

“Yes, to make sure, to take a closer look, you know, just in case,” said Glenelle.

 “In case of what?” said Doug.

“Well, that’s what we’re here for,” said McIntyre. “To see if there is a what or maybe whats.” He paused and tapped his pad with the pencil’s eraser. “You have a daughter.” He said daughter slowly.

“Lauren,” said Doug.

Glenelle rolled her eyes. “She’s sixteen. And the boys are coming out of the woodwork.”

“Well, yeah,” said Doug.

“What does that mean?” said Glenelle. She’d perused an online quiz recently. The ten questions concerned masturbation. Doug kept a bottle of unscented lotion in the bathroom and there was a hotel sampler in the shower.

“Sixteen… Teenage girl.” Doug’s hands supported a large invisible punch bowl.

“Well, these boys.” Glenelle brushed an imaginary crumb on her blouse.

“Girls and boys,” said McIntyre as if everything were coming together. He stifled a wink at Doug. “Do you have a plan? Are you in agreement over how to monitor her behavior, her friends? These boys?”

“I wouldn’t really say that,” said Doug. He wanted to say that Lauren was the least of his worries. “I mean we disagree sometimes, don’t we?”

Glenelle folded her arms and McIntyre jotted a note. She touched her left hand to her breastbone. “Lauren is very sexual.”

“Sexual?” said Doug. He scowled. He preferred pretty over sexual.

“Her body. It doesn’t matter what she wears.” Glenelle leaned back.

“What?” Doug leaned forward.

McIntyre intervened. “So here is one of those whats we were looking for. Glenelle, do you feel that Doug is out of touch with your feelings about Lauren’s sexuality?”

“Exactly.” The quiz on masturbation had linked to a quiz on cheating husbands. The first question had concerned cell phones, specifically the wireless earbud. When Doug wore the earbud, she couldn’t hear it ring and he could pretend no one was calling. She hated the earbud.

“But honey, I’m a guy!” Doug had discussed this very issue with his best friend Lawrence, over and over, and he knew exactly what Glenelle would say next.

“What does that mean, I’m a guy? You could be a turtle and Lauren would be just as out there whether you were a guy or anything else.” As a teenager, Glenelle had kept a pet turtle. It had lived for nine years and now she wished that she’d used a different analogy.

“But, I am a guy. I see it like guys see it.” Glenelle had begun to sneak cigarettes a month or so ago. It was so obvious that Doug was embarrassed to mention it. He didn’t really care as long as she didn’t smoke in the house or the car.

“Do you like what you see? Other girls her age?” The cigarettes were in her purse. She had succumbed at the writing conference in Austin, at an outdoor café with Jane. Jane had published twelve children’s books, all with beautiful illustrations.

Doug hesitated. He tried not to shift his gaze. “Lauren is a beautiful young woman. I’m her father and I can say that.”

Glenelle held the invisible bowl. “Doug, that doesn’t answer my question.” She worried that McIntyre thought she was being difficult and looked at him with a look that said just that. She stared at Doug’s wedding ring. Was that lotion around the band?

McIntyre intervened. He had hoped to keep the session more abstract, but inevitably things turned to sex. “Tell me, Doug, one thing regarding Lauren that you and Glenelle agree on.”

“She has to be in by 9 on weeknights, 10:30 on Saturdays, and 9:30 on Sundays.”

Glenelle nodded but added, “Doug, though, is bad about letting her come in late on Sundays.”

Doug said nothing.

“Well let’s get back to you guys. It’s tough raising a teenager and you’re in agreement on at least one point. I would say just keep talking about it.” He clapped his hands together as if to initiate a new relationship.


In the shower, Doug watched the water run over the red streak on top of his right thigh. He had mowed, weeded, trimmed, and raked the weekend before and then spent that Monday, Memorial Day, covered in sunscreen lounging beside the pool. He should have bathed after soaking in the hot tub with his brother-in-law, but it was late and before he knew it he’d gone three days without a shower.

Another spot just above his knee was hard, painful, and felt hot. He washed his legs with care, taking longer than usual. In the steamy stall, he dabbed on antibiotic ointment, planning to watch it for a day or two. The bathroom door flew open.

“Everything okay?” said Glenelle. “Just getting some toilet paper here.” She always took a bath at night, whereas Doug preferred to shower in the morning.

“A-OK,” said Doug. He cracked the shower door and reached for the towel. He glimpsed Glenelle who glimpsed him glimpsing her.


At the second session, a week later, McIntyre arrived late and unlocked the office door.

“Jeez, I’m so sorry guys,” he said. “I almost never do that.”

“Do what?” said Glenelle. She wore jeans and a sweatshirt emblazoned with her alma mater’s mascot, a tiger.

“Be late,” said McIntyre. He wore clean tennis shoes with dress pants and looked unsure of his surroundings.

Glenelle and Doug took their places on the love seat. McIntyre pushed his chair left then right, looked at the ceiling, and sat with a grunt.

“What kind of week has it been?” he said, looking at Doug.

“I’d say we had a pretty good week,” said Glenelle. She wore a mother-of-pearl turtle brooch on her sweatshirt.

Doug frowned. The streak on his thigh was now a large oblong lump, tender and red. The spot on his knee had grown and a fresh series of small pustules peppered his lower leg.

“Doug?” said McIntyre.

“It’s been a blur, kind of,” said Doug. He placed both palms on his thighs.

“You seem uncomfortable, Doug.” McIntyre leaned forward, wondering if he was demonstrating empathy or sympathy.

“No, but I think there’s been less shouting.”

Glenelle cleared her throat.

“Shouting?” said McIntyre.

“He doesn’t mean shouting, like shouting. It’s usually Lauren, I think, right hon?”

“We always shout and that’s one reason we’re here. I thought.” Doug looked at McIntyre. “If I’m upstairs, she yells from downstairs. Or talking from different rooms, that sort of deal.”

Glenelle dipped her chin to her chest. Her neck tensed. If he was going to lock the bathroom door with the exhaust fan on, she would continue to shout.

“Oh, so shouting not in anger but trying to talk when you’re in different parts of the house. Would you like to work on that as well?”

“Exactly,” said Glenelle, nodding her head. Goosebumps marched across her arms. The seventh question on the quiz had asked about the presence of pornography in the house. That was laughable, of course, but what about Doug’s subscription to Men’s Health, those ads with nearly naked women in them?

Doug’s earbud beeped and he reached for the phone on his belt.

“Doug, take that thing off.”

“I forget it’s on,” said Doug. He pulled it out of his ear and dropped it in his shirt pocket.

“I’ll have to confess I don’t have a cell phone,” said McIntyre.

“Good for you,” said Glenelle.

Doug pressed his lips together and glanced at the air duct above McIntyre’s head.

“Does your daughter ever comment on the shouting?” said McIntyre. He jotted a note, drew a triangle inside a triangle.

“She yells at us to stop yelling,” said Doug. He wondered what ibid meant. He flipped the end of his yellow tie and pushed his right shoe into the carpet. He was on the brink of going to the doctor about his legs.

“No she doesn’t,” said Glenelle.

“Let’s move on, I guess,” said Doug, imagining himself with no legs.


Glenelle walked in on Doug. He was making an appointment with his doctor’s secretary.

“That’s fine. Yes. Sure. Bye bye.” Doug winced. He had started saying bye bye when Lauren was born and had never been able to shake the habit.

“Don’t hang up because of me,” said Glenelle. Her chin seemed so small in certain light. She was in her green robe and freshly bathed. She worked part time as a church secretary.

“Who’s picking up Lauren today?” he said.

“I thought you were,” she said, working her wet hair with her wet fingers.

“You have any q-tips in your bathroom?” he said. He had used all of his dabbing ointment onto his two-dozen sores. And the two original sores were alarming, becoming purply. The one on his knee felt like a small egg.

“You’re picking her up, right? She has violin you know. So who called?” She fluffed a pillow.

“Q-tips or not?” said Doug.

She opened his sock drawer and moved things around.


Doug was three days into his antibiotic. His doctor had whistled and snapped on gloves before touching his leg. It was MRSA and the antibiotic was clindamycin, big green capsules four times a day, difficult to hide from Glenelle. He was as embarrassed as he was mortified, stopped going to the gym, and wore long pants despite the heat. Thus far, though, his sores looked exactly the same, unchanged, and he was on edge.

At McIntyre’s office, Glenelle arrived at 1:45 and Doug at 2:05. The same woman, leaving at 1:55, sobbed louder than ever. McIntyre had walked her to the parking deck this time and returned at 2:08, a patch of dark sweat on the back of his short-sleeve silk shirt patterned with gray swirls.

“I’m so sorry about that,” said McIntyre. He chided himself for saying he was sorry when what he meant was, I apologize.

“Divorce?” said Glenelle. The woman looked familiar.

“I can’t really say,” said McIntyre.

“That’s confidential, Glenelle,” said Doug. He wanted to tell them that the drugs weren’t working, that the doctor wanted him to take the full ten days of antibiotic before trying something else. He had begun to fantasize that his immune system was on the blink, that he would dissolve into a sticky puddle.

“Where shall we begin today?” said McIntyre.

Doug decided he might as well get his money’s worth. “Well, what really bugs me,” and he looked at Glenelle, “is that I get zero credit for doing yard work. She just assumes that since I enjoy it, it doesn’t count toward anything.” He lowered his elbows to his knees.

During an eight-second silence, McIntyre wrote Conflict and drew a series of nested Vs. There was something about Glenelle’s chin that bothered him. He drew little circles.

“But what about intimacy?” she said.

“Intimacy?” Doug looked at the ceiling.

“Does my attitude toward your yard work make you less interested? Because you and I both know…” Glenelle felt fresh, like a refrigerated daisy.

“And maybe you like doing laundry.” Doug felt pale, like room-temperature catfish.

McIntyre squirmed. This very thing had been an issue with him and his first wife. She’d had a weak chin as well.


By Friday, Doug’s leg looked worse, even with the antibiotic. He had checked around and there was a new drug but doctors were reluctant to prescribe it to anyone with a 10-dollar co-pay. At nearly two grand a treatment, physicians were prescribing at least two conventional antibiotics before issuing Zyvox.

That night, after a long shower washing his legs with a surgical grade cleanser, Doug locked himself in the bathroom and applied a prescription ointment to each sore. They itched like crazy and hurt. Before emerging into the bedroom, he slipped on a pair of nylon sweat pants. The overhead light was off and Glenelle lay under the covers, her chin lit by her reading lamp. Lauren was spending the night with friends.

“My, what long showers we take… and at night?” She sat up with the maroon spread clutched to her chest.

“Just feels good and hospitals aren’t the cleanest places in the world.” He wanted to die.

“Are you limping, honey?”

“Maybe a little, probably from sitting at my desk all day.”

“Come here.”


“Tell me why you love me.”


“It’s just a game. Plus I may have a surprise for you.” She let the spread slip to the end of her breasts. They fell to the sides of her chest as if she kept them tucked under her arms during the day.

Doug couldn’t think. “I’ve been having diarrhea,” he said. It was the antibiotic.

“Oh really? Come here and let me rub your shoulders, or maybe you rub mine. You’re coming to bed aren’t you? Is your tummy still upset?”

“I took something.” Doug sat on her side of the bed. He let her put a hand on his back, and she squeezed his shoulder.

“Do you love me?”

“Of course I love you.”

“I think seeing the counselor is a good thing, don’t you?”

“Can’t hurt, I suppose.”

She made a wrong-answer sound. Doug’s leg loomed in front of him and he worried she could smell the infection.


After a secret visit to the ER on Saturday, Doug was on cloud nine. There, a young intern had taken one look at his leg, whistled, and said, “Wow.” The knot on his knee yielded a syringe of yellow pus and when she nicked it with a scalpel, out came even more. She packed the hole with gauze and wrote him the golden ticket for Zyvox. That day Glenelle noticed a $10 debit to their online checking account, Doug’s drug co-pay.

McIntyre led his one o’clock train wreck from the office, weeping as usual. Glenelle snapped her fingers and recognized her as the receptionist at the Honda dealership. It was 1:58 and everyone was on time.

“Has this been a productive week?” said McIntyre.

“It’s been okay, better in the past couple of days, I think,” said Doug. He smoothed his green tie. His leg felt great.

“You’ve been in a better mood,” said Glenelle with a sad look. She wore her black pants suit with the ruffles.

“So how have you managed with the shouting?” said McIntyre.

“Well, okay, but Doug has been very quiet. He had to work this weekend, and I think maybe he was mad about it.” She folded her hands.

“What? I wasn’t mad,” said Doug.

“Well, you were gone for four hours and you went to the drugstore for something because I saw the charge.” Glenelle took a deep breath.

McIntyre scribbled.

“What does that mean?” said Doug.

“Maybe you bought condoms,” said Glenelle.

McIntyre’s gums tingled, sensing a revelation in the works.

“Condoms?” said Doug. He tugged his collar.

“And why sweat pants all the time? Is it a soccer mom?” Glenelle backed herself onto the arm of the love seat.

McIntyre started to say something.

“You want to know!” Doug half stood and sat back down.

“Of course, I do! I thought it was bad enough you were masturbating night and day, but I guess that’s not the half of it!” Glenelle stood with clenched fists, trembling, craving a cigarette.

“Why don’t you write a children’s book about a mother who sneaks around smoking and spying on her husband!” shouted Doug.

“Why don’t you build a car from one those damn kits!” Doug’s face looked like her brother’s face, which looked like her father’s face.

“Well maybe I’ve got Lou Gehrig’s disease! What about that!”

“And maybe you suddenly like tomatoes!”

“I’ve always liked tomatoes!”

McIntyre was speechless. He thought about how wishy-washy he had become, about his inability to take credit cards.

Glenelle reached into her purse. With shaking hands she lit a cigarette as Doug stood and left without a word.

McIntyre stood and hit his shin on the table. He paused at the narrow window behind Glenelle and stared with her at the cars crawling below. He put his hand on her shoulder. “I like tomatoes, but not in a salad.”


[Check out Russell’s back porch wisdom here]

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