Health for All
For “El Negro” Fontanarrosa, for his lawless fat men . . .
A 2050 public health campaign goes too far, resulting in allergy-free municipalities, fines for obesity, and exile to the Isle of the Sick. Is that a sneeze coming on? Better stop it!
A tall, lanky man, but with a flabby and protruding paunch, approaches the door stealthily and knocks three times.
The tiny window opens and a cracking voice says: “Password?”
“Trypanosoma gambiense,” he whispers, and they let him in.
“I’m a little late because the White Brigade stopped me at the end of the block,” he explains, rubbing his belly, only to add later, furious: “The bastards gave me a three-hundred-peso fine for incipient obesity. I don’t know where this is going to end,” he sighs. “By the way, you should consider changing the password to something a little more unusual,” he suggests to the couple waiting for him inside. “A lot of people have heard of the tsetse fly and sleeping sickness.”
“And what do you want us to change it to? Lupus erythematosus? Korsakov syndrome? Sarcoidosis?” complains the owner of the house, a rosy-cheeked codger, who coughs incessantly while lighting an illegal home-rolled cigarette. “Those reruns of the twenty seasons of House have complicated our lives. As if we didn’t already have enough problems; everyone knows so many medical terms now, it’s disgusting.”
“Yessir, last week we were approached by three simulators. Provocateurs, undercover agents of the White Brigades, I’m certain,” his wife says, a little old woman whose back is curved at an angle that defies even non-Euclidean geometry. “Can you believe it, son: one of them swore he had spina bifida, to me! Who can spot a false scoliosis one hundred meters away! I sent him to the Family Doctor, of course. I don’t let myself be provoked so easily.” She looks at him, squinting her eyes. “By the way, what do you have?”
“An egg allergy,” the tall, gangling man murmurs, in a low voice, as if ashamed of the relative insignificance of his suffering. “I get really sick, I get hives, and my throat closes. Once they even had to do a tracheotomy on me.”
“Illegally?” the old cougher asks without hesitation, blowing a suspicious cloud of poisonous nicotine smoke into his face.
“Of course,” the guy with a trach boasts, coughing, showing a whitish scar on his neck, with a protruding keloid to prove it.” My cousin did it, with a kitchen knife, and used a ballpoint pen cartridge as a tube. Everything was improvised: he didn’t even boil it. I almost died of septicemia, but I’m eternally grateful just the same. If I went to the Family Doctor now, for sure I’d end up being sent to the Isle of the Sick. My municipality was declared free of allergies in 2036. Just think . . .”
“Poor thing. It’s a rare and especially uncomfortable condition. But we’ve got Prednisone, Benadryl, all the antihistamines you want, and some haven’t even expired yet, just so you know,” the little old lady replies in solidarity and then returns to the charge: “And your cousin, why didn’t you bring him, son? A clandestine surgeon would come in handy. There are so few of us.”
“The White Brigades took him away two months ago. He cut off a finger and refused the mandatory transplant. I mean, I tried to warn him not to question the Ministry of Public Health and its program of compulsory organ regeneration so openly,” says the tall, ungainly man, in a neutral tone, like someone who’s not yet accepted the loss of the only accomplice in his own family. Then he asks: “Are we the only ones? Is anyone else coming?”
“Sure, of course,” the old man brags, still smoking like a locomotive. “We’re a large cell. This neighborhood just pretends to be healthy, like everyone, ha! We’re missing tonight’s speaker. He’s traveling quite a distance. And we’re waiting for Mr. Hepatitis B and Mr. Orchitis.”
“And Mrs. Diabetes and her two children: Asthma and Vitiligo. It’s quite a juggling act for them to come here without being noticed,” explains the old hunchbacked woman. “Her husband and daughter are normal, healthy. It must be hard to live under the same roof with the enemy. By the way, welcome aboard, sonny. You can call me Grandma Old Bones or, if you prefer, Osteoporosis.”
“Nice to meet you,” says the tall, gangling man. “My name is Edu—”
“We don’t want to know,” the old man interrupts. “Compartmentalization, you understand. One of the first rules of any conspiracy. Here you’ll be Egg Allergy. I’m Emphysema, the head of the cell.” He hands him the cigarette, friendly: “A little puff?” A sympathizer who still has an illegal tobacco plantation in Vuelta Abajo makes them himself and brings them to me.”
“Nice to meet you. Osteoporosis, Emphysema, it’s a pleasure,” says Egg Allergy, accepting the cigarette without hesitation and inhaling the smoke with delight before returning it to its owner. “The guy’s a beast, eh? It’s almost as bad as the old Populares brand.”
Then he looks around for a place to sit in the small room.
There’s an uncomfortable-looking wooden chair and a large sofa located directly beneath a giant poster of a smiling bodybuilder who displays muscles that would be difficult to recognize in an anatomy textbook, so swollen that they look like deformities. The sign above reads: HEALTH FOR ALL IN 2050.
There’s an uncomfortable-looking wooden chair and a large sofa located directly beneath a giant poster of a smiling bodybuilder who displays muscles that would be difficult to recognize in an anatomy textbook, so swollen that they look like deformities.
Egg Allergy, whose incipient belly looks like unquestionable proof that he hasn’t dedicated a single minute of his four and a half decades to physical exercise, sits in the chair and, looking out of the corner of his eye at the hyper-healthy Hercules, remarks to his hosts: “They’re out of control with this thing. How can you stand looking at that announcement every day? It’s disgusting.”
“Camouflage,” Emphysema clarifies, turning on the television as he finishes his cigarette. “No precaution is too small to keep the White Brigades away; after the congress they’ve stepped up the harassment. Besides, over time you don’t even realize that it’s hanging there.”
On the screen, a group of children whose rosy cheeks exude health brush their teeth with enthusiasm, laughing and playing with the toothpaste foam while a voice-over warns of the importance of daily brushing to prevent tooth decay and other dental problems. Below, it reads HEALTH FOR ALL IN 2050.
“Turn it off, or at least change the channel,” Egg Allergy begs. “Those commercials give me a toothache. I almost prefer the old ones, that urged us to go to the plaza on May 1 to vote in the election, or to give up our seat to the elderly on the bus.”
“Yeah, we’ve gone too far with this obsession about health,” Osteoporosis sighs and changes the channel to one where children, grown-ups, and the elderly were practicing tai chi under the inevitable HEALTH FOR ALL IN 2050 banner.
“The truth is, it all started in the last century with the question of infant mortality,” Emphysema grumbles nostalgically, lighting his next cigarette with the butt of the first. “They were obsessed with having the lowest rate in the world. We’re all guilty. We should have stopped them then.”
“We should have stopped them a lot sooner, for that and a lot of other things, but we didn’t, and now there’s no way to.”
“I have a daughter,” Egg Allergy confesses, excited. “Her name is Eva. And can I make a confession? They didn’t officially pronounce her alive until a month after she was born. Can you believe that? They didn’t even let me name her, just in case. In my municipality, according to the statistics at least, it’s been twelve years since a child’s died.”
“I don’t know how the World Health Organization isn’t suspicious of an infant mortality in negative numbers,” Osteoporosis seconds him; then, two glasses in hand, she extracts an antique bottle of rum from a well-concealed hiding place in a living-room column, fills a glass, and takes a long swig of spirits before continuing. “How can more children survive than are born? Ridiculous. Want a drink, boy?” she offers, toasting to Egg Allergy.
“Thank you, but I don’t drink on an empty stomach,” the guest answers, adding immediately: “It may be ridiculous, but it’s also very logical in a country where if you cut off a finger and don’t accept the mandatory transplant, you’re sent to prison for assault against the state labor force.”
“Where it’s a crime not to eat healthy food, and you’re controlled and forced to exercise three times a week,” Emphysema rejoins, between two drags of his cigarette.
“Where theft is called ‘shortfall,’” Osteoporosis adds.
There’s a knock at the door.
Osteoporosis hides the bottle; Emphysema, his cigarette, and only then does he open the door.
The password ritual is repeated, and three men and a woman with two children enter and immediately take possession of the sofa beneath the poster of the radiant bodybuilder.
The head of the cell introduces the newcomers: “Egg Allergy, this is the whole gang. Hepatitis B, Orchitis, that’s Mrs. Diabetes and her children, Asthma and Vitiligo.”
Hepatitis B and Orchitis look healthy. But Egg Allergy’s not surprised: anyone who suffered from visible diseases disappeared years ago. Only the most astute and skillful at disguise have been able to escape.
He glances at Mrs. Osteoporosis. How has she been able to hide her massive spinal deformity? By never leaving home, perhaps? There’s always a way, if you just look for it . . .
Then he stares at the mother and her children. The woman looks perfectly healthy, and the children too, but Vitiligo’s wearing a complete Spiderman costume, mask included.
Mrs. Diabetes notices the direction of his gaze and explains, smiling: “It’s a good thing the kids don’t have to wear a uniform to school anymore. First it was Batman, then Flash, but Spiderman is the best. At least until they sell Iron Man costumes. This way we prevent his father and sister from seeing his skin, and when he has no choice but to show it, we make sure it’s as dirty as possible. At the beach, I put colored sunscreen on him, but I don’t know what I’m going to do when he gets bigger,” she wrings her hands, desperate. “I couldn’t take it if they sent him to the Isle of the Sick. People say horrible things about that place.”
There’s an awkward silence.
“I have a friend at the Blood Bank who sells me donor cards,” Mr. Hepatitis B confesses, in an obvious effort to change the subject. “That allows me to pass as healthy. And a lot of condoms, of course.”
“I’m better . . . and worse,” Orchitis complains, referring to himself. “I don’t need the cards, but I’ve not been able to be with a woman for years, with or without a condom, not even with all the lights off for fear of them discovering my oversized testicle. It’s really tough.”
“I can imagine, honestly.” Egg Allergy motions to the third man who has just arrived: a pale, thin, tired-looking sort. “And him? Heart problems?”
“No. He’s this evening’s speaker,” Emphysema crows. “He’s from Central Level, you know? I’d like to present Mr. AIDS! The last free HIV-positive patient in the country.”
A murmur of admiration runs through the assembled. Orchitis, Osteoporosis, and Hepatitis B approach the hero of the evening so they can see him up close and welcome him warmly. “I knew we were venereal colleagues,” the hepatic says proudly.
The pale guest asks for silence, raising his arms in a theatrical gesture, and begins his sermon in archaic but effective rhetoric:
“Brothers of misfortune, what a pleasure to see you! But at the same time how regrettable the circumstances that bring us together here tonight! We live in hiding in basements and attics, as subversives, outcasts, when the only thing we demand is the inalienable human right to sickness. Oh, for those halcyon days when the waiting room in every doctor’s office was a free forum in which we could all speak without fear, comparing our sufferings and medical histories! Those days when every physician was a patient listener and benefactor who did not judge or condemn!
“We live in hiding in basements and attics, as subversives, outcasts, when the only thing we demand is the inalienable human right to sickness.”
“Has perchance compassion disappeared from the human soul? What terrible metamorphosis has transformed those once-benevolent doctors, who arose to understand and cure, into ruthless executioners who denounce, repress, and exile? And to their once-indispensable assistants, the nurses, transformed into the cruel White Brigades that invade our homes daily in search of the slightest symptom of illness and wrest the unfortunate from their family and community, exiling them forever to the Isle of the Sick? Have we in this way earned the reputation of being the healthiest and most salutary nation on the planet? Is sweeping the dirt under the rug the best way to clean the house? If so, we reject such an honor stained with blood, vomit, and pus!
“Sick of the world, let us unite! We have nothing to lose but our suffering and our shame. Enough of hiding in the shadows. Let us go out into the light, proudly displaying our tumors, deformities, and purulent sores! Let us prove to the world that perfect health is the worst of all diseases, for it implies that the venom of intolerance poisons the soul of those who desire and demand it! Let us remind them that someday they could be like us, as we were once like—”
Just then the doors are kicked in and the windows broken in unison. The lights go out. There are screams, shrieks, and the sound of bodies falling to the ground, unconscious.
Amid a shower of broken glass, a flapping of curtains, and a thundering of boots, the athletic commandos of the White Brigade, unmistakable in their snow-white biohazard suits, storm the small room. Not a single member of the cell manages to escape.
When they’ve taken away the other prisoners, who struggle in indignation and protest the misunderstanding, claiming to be healthy, innocent, law-abiding, and fervent followers of the sage doctrines of the Ministry of Public Health, the captain of the command approaches Egg Allergy, who’s immobilized between two strapping youths.
Then, with a jerk, he strips off his helmet and shroud, and they both burst into complicit laughter. The two men of the White Brigade who pretended to subdue Egg Allergy release him to join in the triumphant roar, and seconds later the three commandos have freed themselves from their awkward and cumbersome biohazard suits.
“I thought you’d never get here,” Egg Allergy confesses, freeing himself from the soft silicone adhesive prosthesis that covered his square, muscular abdomen, which created the effect of a perfect sedentary paunch, then rips out the hidden locator in the keloid from the fake scar on his neck, which allowed his comrades to locate the top-secret site of the meeting and capture all the subversive patients.
“Well, we finally captured that elusive HIV-positive patient. But it was hard, eh, boy?” Without the suit, the captain could very well be the bodybuilder from the poster above the sofa. “Undercover work always is. And not just because of the risk of contagion; after all, vaccines exist to minimize it. It’s just that you feel . . . dirty, sick, you know,” he confessed, with a strange smile. “A few years ago, I infiltrated one of these cells, and months later I still woke up at dawn, thinking I had scabies, cancer, leprosy, or something worse. I guess it was a guilt complex.”
Another man from the Brigade, still in full gear, appears and says, his voice distorted by his helmet and shroud: “Captain, you won’t believe it! The old woman didn’t have anything. Turns out she was a contortionist in the circus.”
“Shit and salmonella,” Egg Allergy grouses. “A hypochondriacal simulator, and very clever. Now we’ll have to set her free, even though she’s almost as dangerous as her husband.”
“Free?” the captain laughs. “Not a chance. She won’t go to the Isle of the Sick, sure. But we’ll lock her up just the same, for Accessory to Illegal Illnesses and Obstruction of Public Health.”
“And Incitement to Alcoholism,” Egg Allergy adds sadistically. “She tried to get me to drink rum.” He paused and continued to talk: “The hardest thing wasn’t pretending to be one of them, smoking, pretending to renounce physical exercise and questioning our wonderful campaigns to reduce infant mortality or compulsory transplantation, but listening to the rhetorical spittle from that Mr. AIDS.” His eyes shine with fanatical satisfaction as he adds: “It’s a good thing he won’t sow anymore poison in what little time he has left to live and that this was the last cell in the city. The HEALTH FOR ALL IN 2050 Congress will be the worldwide success we always dreamed of. But we can’t sleep, nor rest on our laurels; we have to maintain our reputation as the healthiest country and . . . and . . .” He sneezes.
Contrite and astonished, he looks at his colleagues in the White Brigade, smiles apologetically, and rubs his nose: “It can’t be the flu; Captain said I’m protected by the vaccine. Surely it’s just an allergic reaction to that cigarette Emphysema gave me; I couldn’t refuse him, or they would have suspected me, and considering how harmful tobacco is . . .” He breathes deeply. But it’s too late. The second sneeze escapes, uncontrollable.
In an instant, shouting “Medical alert!,” the captain and his two men, who’ve already put their hoods back on, pounce on him.
Translation from the Spanish