I met Ronald Reagan once. It was at Judy’s Sunshine Diner off the edge of interstate 70, back in the spring of ’80. I remember it was May 12th. A week after Cinco de Mayo, of course nobody up here in Missouri seems to know a damn thing about any of that. See, we come up from San Antonio a few months before. Took a promotion as Midwest regional director for sales for a hardware company, and the job transferred me up to Columbus, which is fine. It’s just not Texas. We made the best of it. Got the state flag flying from our porch, and some of the neighbors got to calling our place “The Embassy.” Hell if I didn’t get a kick out of that.
But you see, if we didn’t live in Missouri on that day, this wouldn’t have happened, so I think I know why the good lord put me so far away from home. I believe it was what they call fate.
I was a little pissed off when I woke up that morning. It was a Monday, and our oldest girl Heather took Dotty to some goddamn weekend seminar out in St. Louis. Says they were going to get “self-actualized.” Of course they weren’t back home yet from their little gathering, and they forgot to grab some eggs at the store, so there wasn’t anything to eat in the house. I get a call from the wife at the hotel, and she’s telling me that everything went so late, and she was too tired, and her knee was locking up so she got another night stay at the hotel. Says I should go and make due on a bowl of corn flakes. Let me get one thing straight; I like to think of myself as a progressive man. I wouldn’t tell the wife that she can’t step out of the house for a weekend, and I’m not telling her that she can’t get a job. Hell, I like a woman with a certain amount of grit. But a grown man can’t be meeting clients on a bowl of soggy flakes and some grapefruit. So I get in my car and go out to Judy’s Diner. The place is packed, so I don’t bother trying to get a table. I just sit up at the booth. And about 15 minutes later there’s this commotion. I don’t know what’s going on, but I see these men in black suits walk in with them ear pieces. And then there’s a couple of news vans. NBC. CBS. ABC. All of ‘em.
And then, there he is. Just as I’m settling into my biscuits and gravy, he walks into the door. Ronald Wilson Reagan. California governor, Hollywood actor, and soon to be the 40th President of the United States, in the flesh. The man who was going to put that pussy Carter out on his ass come November was in the room. Let me tell you, I’ve met a lot of bigwigs in my day. Saw Gene Autrey once when we went out to Los Angeles to visit my brother-in-law. Caught Staubach at an icehouse in San Antonio. But none of those guys had what this guy had. Not in 1980. Talking charisma? Hell, you could just feel the temperature in the room drop when he walked in. They say you have to have “it” if you want to be president. I never knew quite what the hell that meant until I saw the man up close. Just looked like he was supposed to be president. You wanted it to happen. Missouri’s got a lot of range, and I would have to bet that there were more than a few liberals at one of those booths, but not a goddamn eye was looking away from the man who was going to bring this country out of the shit. Morning in America, they used to say. There he was. Right there that morning. And he’s walking toward me. Well, he’s walking to the counter, but I happen to be in his way, so for a minute it looks like he’s walking to me. He waves to a few of the tables, but then he turns those eyes on me and dials up that smile I’ve seen on the TV. You don’t forget something like that. That’s power. That’s something special.
He asks me how I’m doing. Can you believe that? This is a guy who has probably visited more states in the last three days than I have seen in my entire life. The guy who goes on to stare down the Soviets and break up the Unions. And there’s cameras on me. Now the world wants to know what I have to say. I wish I would have made a joke about my wife at that actualization conference, and how I needed a good meal so I got out of the house. Something that would have made him laugh. But for the first time in my life, I swear to God, I didn’t know what to say. Vapor lock. So I tell him “I’ll be better once you get in that damn oval office.” I guess that made him laugh, but I didn’t mean for it to be a joke. Then, get this, he turns to me with that gravely voice and tells me “Well, I’d pay for breakfast, but I don’t want people thinking I’m out buying votes.” Boy, I about fell off my stool.
So then I ask him for a handshake. Now the backstory on this was that he was fighting something fierce. See I think he had just cancelled a speaking arrangement, or something got delayed. And this is on the campaign trail. You don’t just go around bailing on events that could lead to the presidency, so he must have been sick as a dog. And he tells me he doesn’t want to lose my vote by giving me whatever it was that he had. But when was I ever going to get the chance to shake the soon to be leader of the free world’s hand? And hell, he didn’t even look that sick to me. You really couldn’t tell anything was wrong with him until you got right up and looked him in the eye, where you might have seen a bit of fatigue. I told him he’d lose the vote if he stiffed me, and he shook my hand. On camera with all them news crews buzzing about.
I don’t remember if I even bothered to finish my breakfast. I bet I didn’t. I remember throwing down 20 bucks on the counter and telling Judy to keep it for herself, which was a hell of a tip, but as for actually eating? No, I can’t say that I recall any of that. I went into work and don’t think I got a damn thing done all day. I kept going on about Reagan, and telling them to make sure they caught the news. Somebody picked up a copy of the evening paper, and sure enough, there I was on the cover, pressing flesh with the next president. I march around the office and showed everybody. Especially that asshole kid Peter, who told me I was full of shit and said at best I just saw a guy who looked like Reagan. I slapped the paper on the desk while he was on the phone, and asked him if that looked like Reagan to him. Prick.
I tied one on with some of the boys at the bar after work and get back to see if my wife had seen the news. Of course when I get there she’s reading some book on the couch. I ask her if she saw, and she tells me she doesn’t watch TV anymore. Something about how the media manipulates us. I ask her if she read the evening paper. She doesn’t do that anymore either. So I ask her how she plans on getting the news if she isn’t going to turn on the TV or pick up a paper, and she says that she wants to work on herself for a little while. Says I’ll tell her if anything important happens. Then I make like it’s no big deal and hand her the paper with my face on the cover smiling and shaking Reagan’s hand. That shocked her out of her little hippie daze. She got up and smiled and gave me a big kiss on the cheek. Though honestly she could have made a little bit of a bigger deal out of the news. I mean I just met the candidate for President. And the first one who had been making any sense in damn near forever. For Christ’s sake, I mean there was a room full of people in that diner, and he walks up to me and asks me how I’m doing. Isn’t that interesting? He could have walked up to anybody, but he picked me.
He picked me.
He picked me, and I don’t think he could tell you why. I think he thought it was just a random selection. But nothing in this world’s random. I think that maybe he was drawn to me. I have always been a people person. They come to me. I’ll tell a story, the way I’m doing right now, but even before I open my mouth a random person will look around a room and see me and say to him or herself, “Him. I want to see what that fella has to say.” But it’s subtle, like he doesn’t even know he’s thinking it. It’s like orbit. I think sometimes Dotty forgets that from living with me and seeing me everyday.
Then in the middle of the night at about four in the morning, it hits me. It’s a horrible chill. My teeth are chattering and I’m freezing. Just the worst fever I’ve had. I get out of bed without waking my wife and grab a pair of sweatpants, an old Christmas sweater, and the thick robe. I’m clenching my fists and can’t believe how cold I feel while I’m out from under the blankets, and scoot back into bed just as soon as I’ve thrown on as many layers as I can fit. I close my eyes and try to get to sleep, but I know that I’m sick as a dog and have to wake up in two and a half hours to get ready for work. It’s sometime while I’m lying in bed that it hits me. This is that bug that Reagan had. This is what he must have been talking about at that diner. Not wanting to lose my vote and everything. Well hell, I’m not voting for Carter over a damn virus, but I could see what he meant. This bug was a bear.
While I was lying about in bed, I couldn’t help but think about how he must have had to fight. He might have taken a speech off, but he was still going from town to town, spreading the word. He did not call in sick. He put on his suit and marched into diners and other public venues. He had to be present, and he’d have to be ready for at least four more years. It made me think about what I would do. Normally, I probably would have just sat in bed and waited it out. I’d take a sick day, choke down some chicken soup, maybe catch some of the soaps to see what it is those housewives are always going on about. Now? Now it just seems like I’d be wasting a lesson from a great man. Like I said before, Reagan chose me. He walked up to me, and he gave me this thing. And I figure, if he can take it while running for president, I can damn well take a shower, put on my clothes and go into work. We’re getting too damn soft in this country. Used to be you had to work through the pain if you wanted to eat. Now everybody just yells louder and louder for their meal. Anyway, what’d that fucker Gandhi always say? “Be the change you want to see in the world.” I got to thinking that maybe this was my gift. Maybe I could get through a day without anybody noticing a thing until they looked deep into my eyes. Still, I would have liked to break the fever before my alarm went off. No luck.
I woke up at 6:30, just like I do every day. I might have coughed as I sat up, but my wife couldn’t tell that anything was going on. I took a deep breath and walked into the bathroom to take a shower. That felt good. I usually don’t spend too much time wasting water, but I stood around for a few minutes after I had soaped up, and let the water pool around my feet. My leg muscles started to ache from my clenching. I had a tough time relaxing, even though the shower had been blasting me with hot water, and stopped my chills. I must have been in there for 10 minutes, which is a long time for me, and about when I start giving my kids shit for staying in there so long whenever they come home to visit.
As soon as I turn off the water, bam, the chills start right back up. I belly up to the sink to shave, but I’m wrapped in the towel and the robe, and my hand’s shaking. I cut myself three or four times, because I can’t steady the blade and I’m already rushing through the whole process so I can get dressed. This is what Reagan had, and he flew across the country. He had been clean-shaven in all the photos, so I know he was going through the exact same thing. And don’t give me “His handlers took care of all of that.” Bull. Reagan knows how to give himself a shave. I just had to slow things down. Don’t react to the pain. Rise above it. Be a leader.
I grabbed a coffee. Dotty gives me a look when I don’t add my milk and sugar, but I tell her that I wanted to take it black for a morning. She makes me eggs, and I drown them in hot sauce. But really, I just start to hiccupping and coughing, and I can’t quench the heat with a steaming cup of coffee, so I sneak a piece of my wife’s sliced grapefruit while her back is turned. Coffee, hot sauce, grapefruit, and the protein in my eggs. There’s gotta be some medicine in that. All I can do is imagine the reinforcements of vitamins and nutrients as they march toward my ailing stomach. We’re gonna blindside that bug.
Now I get up to go to work, and before I can do anything my wife comes over to give me a kiss, telling me to have a good day. I don’t want to get her sick, but what can I do? If I tell her I’m sick, she’d just tell me that I’m not going into work, and before you know it I’m sidelined. So I tell her that I’ve got kicking breath, and she tells me she doesn’t care, gives me a big old kiss and hands me a stick of gum. What a sweetheart. I felt like an ass in the car. She didn’t deserve to catch what I had. But then I got thinking about something a friend of mine said at the bar. Says that his brother’s a nutritionist or some shit, and that we only get the same sickness once before our body recognizes the virus and blocks it out. So really, I’m just vaccinating her the hard way.
I’ve got the heat blasting in the car, but I still get the chills. My jaw’s flinching, and it hurts to breathe. The air felt too thick for my lungs, which didn’t want to expand. Meanwhile I’m gripping onto the steering wheel. I’m throttling it with my arms locked. I’m like one of them Civil War vets who had to bite into a towel while they saw off his leg. I can’t imagine how I’m going to get through to the end of the day. Just keep your head up, and take it one hour at a time. Don’t let them see you suffer. I stop into an icehouse to grab myself another coffee. It feels good to stretch my legs out, but I still can’t shake the freeze. My arms are shaking and I chug the jumbo sized drink, which burned my tongue. I’m not feeling much warmer, but I’m awake. My day has this sense of purpose with Reagan fever. I’m a walking metaphor for the country in 1980. I’ve got a deep sickness that I’ve got to shake. And it’s a strong virus, which will only make me stronger for whipping its ass. This is my rite of passage. And a part of me wants to spread it to everybody I meet, so that I can show them what we can do. I want to infect everybody at the office. Not to get them sick, but to get them better. I now know what my purpose is. It is to challenge everybody. To see who are the workers, and who are the ones who are looking for an excuse to lay themselves up in bed. Who could I trust in a foxhole? Who is going to fix this country with me?
I get back in my car, still shaking. Is it from the bug? Sure. But it’s also from excitement. I step on it and make up for the 15 minutes that I’d spent standing in the icehouse drinking my coffee. I park at the back of the lot and walk through the cool spring morning. It feels like I’m walking through the artic, but I know it’s got to be at least 60 degrees, and that I’ll be fine. I slow my breathing and lick the palm of my hand before I touch the door handle. I’m gritting my teeth, but I’m smiling. Alice is behind the front desk, and I lean in real close ask her how she’s doing and tell her that she’s going to have a great day. She’s a lot younger than me, so I offer to give her a high five, which she thinks is just a big joke and slaps my wet palm and laughs to herself.
I swing by the other cubicles and walk past my desk. Jimbo is standing by the water cooler and tells me that I look like shit. Now I could have just told him that I think I might have been coming down with something and that I’m not contagious, but that’s not what today is about. It’s about fighting through the pain, and not letting them know the hell I’m feeling. I tell him I’m hung over and that the wife and gave her the old welcome home, if you catch my drift. He laughs and slaps my hand and I tell him to get back to work. Then when he leaves I lick my hand again and run them along the top of the paper cups. I grab the coffee pot, the refrigerator door, the drawers, the faucet knobs. I go about the office, taking breaks when I can, and trying my best to shake off the chill, which has not improved. The dizziness starts to kick in around lunchtime, but I go about meeting with clients and shaking everybody’s hand, telling them that they’re going to have a really great day. A few people ask me why I’m wearing a sweater around the office, but I tell them that I love the heat. I see Alice at the front desk again, and she mentions that my face is pale, so I tell her that she’ll have to do my makeup.
Sometime after noon I can feel my stomach swirling and churning, and get myself over to the bathroom. I think for a moment that I’m going to throw up, but that passes. Instead I get just the worst case of diarrhea. And it’s hot. All of that hot sauce from the morning is coming out the back end, and I can feel my bunghole tightening up with every squirt. Somebody had left the sports section and I want to distract myself, but then I’ll feel that next round coming, and bear down for the fiery burst. Of course I can’t just get it all over in one quick shot. I’ve got to leak this acid for 20 minutes. I don’t have a mirror in there, but I can tell you that my face isn’t pale anymore. I’m sweating from my brows like I just got out of the hot sun down in Texas, and I wipe my face with the front page of the paper. Still, I squeeze down. I want to get all of this out of my system in one pass if I can. I’m clenching my gut, and tapping my foot. I get real lucky that nobody comes into that bathroom to hear me struggling. But I have to go back in a few minutes later. This kept up all afternoon, until I’d wiped my ass raw.
I make it to five, and go back home. Poor Dotty’s already showing symptoms. It took me a day, but she’s already saying that she feels a chill and asks me if I’m alright. I tell her I’m fine, which of course is a lie, but she says she’s too tired to make dinner, so I grab some soup for the poor girl. She gets into her big, ugly purple robe and tells me to get away when I go in to spoon her. Tells me that she doesn’t want me getting sick. I tell her that I’ll risk it and she tells me that I’m sweet. I kind of feel like a prick, but I admire her. She’s still thinking about me when she’s coming down with this nasty thing. I am blessed. I can trust her in a foxhole. I grab her some cough syrup and down a hefty shot for myself when she’s not looking. She goes to bed, but can feel my stomach sloshing one last time and waddle back into the bathroom.
By the time I’d gotten back to bed the old girl was already asleep. I put on my robe and climbed in. My fever must have broken after I fell asleep because later that night I was sitting in a pool of my own sweat, with the robe soaked through. I could have laid down some towels, but I figured I’d just sleep on the couch. Maybe tell Dotty I thought to handle a little business in the middle of the night, and didn’t want to keep her up.
The next day I can hear that beeping sound from my bedroom. I forgot to turn off my damn alarm clock, and Dotty is laid out. She doesn’t even move as it goes off. I hesitate to even wake her up, because I know she’s gonna have a hell of a time. She’s grinding her teeth like she does when she’s not sleeping that well, and I touch her shoulder real gently to wake her up. She tries to look through her hair, and lazily swipes the strands away and starts groaning.
She tells me she’s sick and asks me how I’m doing. I’m good as ever. And then she does something I didn’t account for. She tells me she’s gotta stay home. What’s more, I’ve got to stay home and take care of her. I tell her not to be rash. I’m gonna go downstairs and fix her some breakfast. See what she’s like on some coffee and eggs. I’m thinking don’t give up, girl. Fight. But women are kind of difficult. You can’t just tell them something or they dig their heels in and pretty soon the whole damn house is a protest zone. It’s a tense game, and I’m breathing like a burglar trying to hide my own sickness from her so I can convince her to get out of the house.
She tells me again that I’ve got to stay home and take care of her, and I say that a couple of the guys are going to be out of the office and they need me there. What’s more, I need her to go into work so I don’t have to worry about her alone at home all day. It’s a difficult sell, but we’re children of the dustbowl era. She knows what it’s like to struggle to eat. I could work on that.
I pulled up to work a bit earlier than usual, but not nearly as early as the parking lot suggested. The place was abandoned. I’d expected an army of dedicated soldiers ready to tackle the disease from the same foxhole. All I saw now was deserters. None of this would have happened in Texas. These so-called coworkers would have given up the Alamo before the damn Mexicans bothered to wake up. But hell, maybe everybody caught it and they’re just slow getting up. I could give them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe it’s unfair for me to hold them to my same standard.
10 o’clock rolls around and there’s only a couple of us in the office. Maggie from the end of the office I never get to, and a couple of guys in the back who were on a work trip the day before. So I call up Jimbo at home and ask him where in the hell he is. He tells me “Larry, I’m whipped. There’s some kind of virus going around the town.” I told him I knew about it. Hell I’m the one that gave it to him, and he’s telling me I’ve got it wrong and he’s got something worse than I did. Otherwise I’da never made it in. No use.
I called up Carl and Kevin, and that prick Peter who didn’t believe my Reagan story until I slapped the paper in his face. Finally I called the boss. I say Bruce, you’ve got an entire office out today. Now I don’t care if you’ve got to take a day for yourself. Lord knows you’ve earned the right to say when you’re feeling too sick to work. But if you don’t put a little heat on your boys, I’m gonna start to thinking mutiny’s the norm around here. That’s not leadership. Let’s put a fire up their bungholes and get these jokers to work.
About 11:30 the first of them start to show up. They try to wave me off when I offer them a high five, and I tell them I’m immune. Truth be told, I’m starting to feel better. Not just because I’m starting to kick the bug and I can see the victory up ahead. No, I’m feeling good because of America. Look at these soldiers. Pushing their bodies past what they thought was possible. Driving the American economy. Wednesday, and pushing past the mid point of the week, united by our virus. Reagan’s virus. And sure, some of the men started showing signs of weakness, saying their wives and kids are sick and they need to go home as soon as they can. But together we are strong. Itty-bitty wires wound into a cable strong enough to hold up a suspension bridge.
About 4:30 my wife calls and says she needs me to come home, and she starts telling me she’s got a temperature of 103 degrees. So I tell her to see if our neighbors can swing by and bring her some soup or something, and she says they’re holed up with it as well. I forgot that I shook Hank’s hand when I got back last night. So I tell her that I’ll be home right after work. No drinking with the boys. I’m gonna wrap everything up and get home just as soon as I can.
I look around the office and see everybody hard at work and my heart just swelled. One of em walked up and said he couldn’t help but overhear me on the horn talking to my wife. Asks me why I don’t go home to her, and I tell him I’m fixing to as soon as we get done.
I get ready to leave and somebody finally asks me how I managed to avoid the bug. I tell them I didn’t, and I felt like death yesterday. Jimbo comes to me and swears up and down that I didn’t have what he’s got, and I said I did. Fever. Nauseousness. Diarrhea. Dizziness. The whole enchilada. Said the fever finally broke last night, but it was all I could do to make it through the day.
Smitty coughs and gets in my face. Starts screaming well what in the hell did you come in for? I told him it was because I wasn’t going to let a little bug stop me. Then I ask everybody if they want in on a little secret.
I hadn’t wanted to say it just yet. I wanted to tell them when we had gotten over the bug and were splitting beers on a Friday. Give em all something to laugh about after the storm had passed. But hell, I was just too damn proud. So I lean in and tell em you know this bug I got that ya’ll picked up? Guess where it came from.
Nobody guessed. Reagan. Got it from the handshake. They start scratching their heads and I tell them that he didn’t want to shake my hand. That he warned me he was sick and pointed out that he missed a speaking engagement the night past. It was Reagan’s virus. That was what he was going through, and it didn’t stop him. And it didn’t stop me. And it wasn’t about to stop them. I tell them it’s morning in America. Smitty tells me it’s nearly 5 pm and I tell him to shove it up his ass if he’s gonna smart talk me like that. But I turned to everybody and said the truth. That I wanted them to get sick. I wanted them to feel what it was like to have things go all wrong, and know they would get better if we didn’t give up.
Now I’d like to tell you that they got the message, but they weren’t ready for it. Not right then in the moment. Smitty tells me Bruce told him he was going to be fired if he didn’t come in with a 102 fever. Couple of the others tell me I’m an asshole. Girl says I’m gonna hear it from HR. But that was just the virus talking. In truth, that was the beginning of everything turning around.
I was finally transferred back to San Antonio. And come November 4th, Ronald Reagan whipped Carter’s ass back down to Georgia where he could build huts for bums in the south. Now it wasn’t what you’d call a tight race. Reagan had it in the bag. Now Missouri’s a funny little state. Turns out that for the longest time who ever they voted for President ended up winning the whole contest. And how did Missouri vote? Reagan all the way. I’d like to think that I had a small part in making that happen. Deep down everybody wants to get better. So I never waited for them to actually apologize or thank me. The next 8 years were gratitude enough.