A first-class seat on the Viral Express

The Viral Express makes its way through town a couple times a year and, predictably, I buy a ticket and take a ride. It’s a tradition, and I am nothing if not a slave to tradition.

This year, my trip begins with a minor disturbance.

By that, I mean a bit of — what shall we call it? — “gunk,” in the back of my throat. I clear the crud out and move along. Could be allergies, you know.

That evening, after dinner (a menu loaded, I might add, with plenty of dairy) the gunky crud is back, in spades. I find myself clearing my throat with some regularity.

Kathy notices as well— ever on the lookout for any sign of somatic distress.

“Getting’ sick, aren’t you?”

“No, just a touch of phlegm. But, thanks for your concern.”

“Nope, you’re getting sick. I know you. Plus, you had all that dairy at dinner. How many times have I warned you about dairy, huh? Keep your distance from me, and wash your hands every five minutes, or so. I’m singing in the musical, and I can’t afford a problem. If you give anything to me, there’s no telling what might happen to you.”

By morning, I occupy a choice seat in the Vistadome car of the Viral Express and I am speeding to Misery City. Whatever was in the throat has migrated to the lungs and I am one terrifically sick fellow, coughing deeply, relentlessly, my body aching, exhausted.

“Aha … I told you. Stay away. And don’t you dare go to work.”

So, I go to work. And suffer. Everyone there treats me, as they should, like Typhoid Mary.

Alone in my office, I ponder my certain fate when I return home. I am retreating not to a comfy confine where I can rest next to an imaginary warm hearth and pet an imaginary dog, but rather to Kathy’s Downhome All-Natural-This-Is-Sure-To-Work-Or-Else Pharmacy.

The healer greets me as I stagger through the door.

“Keep your distance.” She hands me a canister of wet wipes labeled “antibacterial, antiviral” and instructs me to retrace my steps and wipe down every surface I’ve touched — doorknobs, garage door button, walls, etc. “Then use a couple to wipe off your hands, before you wash up. And when you wash your hands, use this special surgical soap I bought. Wash your hands twice, scrubbing at least two minutes each time. Because, remember, if you give this to me …”

I have coughed so often during the day, and so violently, that it feels like I have broken some ribs. It is so bad that, when I realize I can’t resist coughing again (say, every minute or so), I bend at the waist in an attempt to restrict the motion and the limit the pain.

I bend over. I hack. It is a deep, rasping, wet cough — like something you’d hear in a barn full of diseased cattle.

“What are you doing?”

“Coughing.”

“You’re coughing into your hand. For crying out loud, cough into the crook of your arm. In fact, go change into one of your ratty high school wrestling team sweatshirts. You can cough into the sleeve and we can burn the shirt once you’re well. And wash your hands again. Twice. Two minutes.”

I change into a sweatshirt, weave my way to the couch and collapse. But not before spotting a scary sight: Kathy has several boxes and bottles lined up on the kitchen counter and she is fiddling around with a kettle of hot water.

Oh, no.

“Here.” She extends a mug o’ steamin’ who knows what.

“What is this?”

“Drink it.”

“What is it?”

“That’s not important. You want to get better, don’t you?”

She scurries back to the kitchen and returns with another mug. The odor emanating from the second brew is — how to say? — noticeable. I wonder if she’s dunked a chipmunk carcass in hot ammonia.

“What is it?”

“Drink it. Hey, wait a minute. You didn’t drink the first one.”

“You didn’t tell me what is in it.”

“You are so difficult. You think because you were raised by a doctor that you know everything, don’t you?”

“What’s in it?”

“If you must know, one of the ingredients is cherry bark.”

“Cherry bark?”

“Native Americans have used it successfully for eons. Drink it.”

“And what is in the second mug?”

“A mix of Vitamin C and various probiotics.”

“Huh?”

“Bottoms up.”

“Probiotics?”

“Drink. You don’t know anything about probiotics. I do; I’m the one who does the reading, not you. All you read about is food. And unhealthy food, at that.”

“I really don’t think, with the medication I’m already taking for my little prob with cancer, that I ought to be putting anything else in me right now.”

She turns on her heel and huffs out of the room, talking as she goes. “Mister Know-it-all the doctor’s son. Someone tries to help but … nooooo. Well, don’t expect any more sympathy from me, buster. Don’t bother whining and moaning. And, most important … don’t you dare give this to me.” The door slams.

I’m sick, and I better shut up about it. But, as is almost always the case, I am nowhere near sick enough to ignore dinner.

What to eat when you are suffering a nasty viral assault?

A slab of probiotics on toast?

Nope. Soup.

The classic response to the situation: chicken soup.

Who wants a cliché? For me, it will be tomato soup. Vitamin C, you know.

A basic tomato soup is one of the easiest and quickest of mixes to put together. Tomatoes, stock, salt, pepper, aromatics (if you wish) and an herb (basil is one of the tomato’s best pals). Cream, if no one is looking.

First: Get rid of any fixation on fresh tomatoes. Even in summer, here in Siberia With a View, finding a fresh tomato, much less enough fresh tomatoes to sacrifice to soup, is next to impossible.

Canned tomatoes. Specifically, Italian canned tomatoes. Big cans. Whole tomatoes.

Aromatics? Finely diced onion, carrot, celery. Saute in the pot. Add stock (chicken or, for the faint of heart, vegetable), taking care not to add too much stock — you can always add more, later, if needed. Simmer. Strain aromatics out of liquid, return reduced liquid to pot. Add tomatoes and their juice, crushing the tomatoes in the hand (unless you’re sick, of course). Add a bit of tomato paste, if you want. Cook down to desired consistency.

At this point, there is a choice to be made: to pulverize, or not. If smooth is your choice, add a bit of the soup to a blender or processor and render smooth. Repeat until the whole mess is blended. Return to pan, simmer, add salt and pepper and some chopped, fresh basil. Taste the soup after five minutes, re-season if necessary.

Or, if you are sick, buy a can of Progresso tomato/basil soup. It’s just swell.

I prepare this for dinner, weaving my way from my deathbed to the kitchen, warming the soup and going the extra mile, whipping up a couple snazzy grilled cheese sandwiches, using my fave Mexican melter.

What a combo.

During dinner, Kathy begins to clear her throat.

Often.

She glowers at me.

For dessert: Cherry bark and a bulletproof vest, anyone?