Friday, March 4, 2011

Black Lungs



I’m dying.  The doctor said it, standing there in the hall with my x-ray films, so it must be true.  Now the kids crouch beside me and talk loud, as if I’m deaf.  Coddle me.  Bring me cases of Ensure.  Their whispers are like buzzing flies when they think I’m asleep.

The grandkids beg me to give up cigarettes.  “So you’ll live longer, Gramps,” they say.  “We want you with us forever.”

They don’t know what it’s like to only have one comfort left in the world.  Well, maybe two.  My easy chair in front of the big screen tv consoles me.  Sometimes.  I bought it with money I won gambling.  They tell me to give that up too.  They probably think I'll blow their inheritance on a slot machine.  What?  Do they think I have piles of gold somewhere?  Ha!

~~~

My oldest boy, his wife hired some gals, not much younger’n me, to come and scrub a lifetime of smoke—mine and hers—off the windows.  I tried to tell ‘em—the kids, the gals--I like it there.  Sometimes I press my hand to the coolness.  This was in her body.  Write her name on the glass with my pointer finger.  This grey veil came out of the mouth she kissed me with.

At night when everyone else on the block is sleeping and I can’t, I go room to room.  Hold onto the walls for support.  I guess I’m looking for her, or a trace of who she was. 

She used to bring me coffee in here, when I shaved.  She’d sit on the commode and giggle when I dabbed her nose with shaving cream.

In here, the kitchen she had me paint the color of butter, she cooked my favorites--country ham, red-eyed gravy, fried potatoes.  Orange peel was the secret ingredient in her strawberry rhubarb pie.  I could polish one off in a day, but she never let me.  No one made stuffed pork chops like my Nancy.  No one.

This was the room where we made love and children.  Every Friday night.  She never had a headache.  Not once.  Her tinyness fit into my hands even though I’m not a big man.  Saturday mornings her face would look rashy—razzed by my whiskery, over and over kisses.  I’d brush her cheeks with my knuckles and apologize with my eyes.  I swear, she could still blush, even at 60.

Four children started out in this corner bedroom.  She called the color, Parakeet Green. Looked more like split pea soup to me.  I can still smell the Lysol she used in the diaper pail.  I hated that sharp scent.  Seemed more angry than clean to me.  If I shut my eyes and don’t move, I can hear her croon, “Rock-a-bye Baby” to each hairless, slate-eyed child.  And that one night?  Crap!  I hate this kind of remembering.  She shook me awake.  I thought her fingernails would go right through my skin. 

“Harry!  Get up!  Something’s wrong!  The baby’s not—“

I dug the grave.  Hardly bigger’n a bread box.  I knew the guys at the cemetery.  They let me go over the hill alone with a shovel, to mutilate the red, West Virginia clay.  I swore out loud.  Took the Lord’s name in vain.  Only once though.  She never let me do it at home.  After awhile, my knees hit the frozen sod.  Crushed the silvered grass.  I hollered at the clouds.

“The child was ours—mine and hers.  Yours too.  Why’d you take her?  Why?”

~~~

After we buried little Elaine, Nancy got out her baptism dress almost every day.  She’d press and press it.  Iron and iron it.  She seemed to think if she got out every last wrinkle, she’d get baby Elaine back, or maybe see her again.  Just one more time.  But that dress was Irish linen, passed down to Nancy from her older sister.  I don’t know much, but I know linen is a pain in the ass to press.

When Nancy went in the hospital, she begged me to keep ironing the dang thing.

“First thing, Harry,” she’d say.  “When you get home, try one more time.  For me.  Please?”

So I’d get it out of the closet in the baby room.  Take it down to the basement and try to get it as smooth as when it left Ireland.  Crazy cloth.  I’d get one wrinkle out and wind up with two more.  There at the end though, I got it perfect.  Made every single line go away.  I hung it on its padded, satin hanger and laid it on the back seat of my Buick.  When I showed her, her face became radiant, like--  Like she was already gone.  Somewhere else. 

I felt my face collapse in on itself.  Oh, no!  What have I done?  I jerked it from the hanger.  Balled it up.  Squeezed it smaller, tighter.  Punched it.  Maybe it wasn’t too late.  She tried to yell, but her voice came out sounding like a baby bird’s.  She acted like she was gonna come after me, after the dress, but she couldn’t lift herself more than a couple inches.  Dehydrated as she was, her tears were a flood. 

The doctor called that night, right after I brushed my teeth.  I knew before I answered the phone.  Before I left the hospital really.

~~~

Every Sunday I drive out to the graveyard.  Take her daisies from the fancy new grocery store out that way.  Sometimes I get our little Elaine a sucker.  I unwrap it and stick it in the ground by the bronze Beloved Child marker.  The candy’s always gone the next time I go.

The kids got me some kinda folding chair contraption to take to the cemetery, so I don’t sit on the ground.  My knees lock up these days if I get down low.  Sometimes I do it anyway, ‘cause it feels closer.  To her.  To them.

I don’t smoke when I go to see her.  When she was . . .   There at the end, she made me promise to stop.  It’s the only promise to her I didn’t keep.  The thing is, I want to die.  The living, the young, think dying’s a bad thing.  Not me.  I’m ready right now, this very minute.  So at home, I sit in my easy chair and light up, over and over.  Try to smoke more today than yesterday.  Newsflash, grandkids.  I don’t want to live forever.  The way I see it, the sooner I die, the quicker I’ll be with my two little gals.

8 comments:

B. WHITTINGTON said...

Incredibly touching is all I can say. Wow. You had me at the first word and I was with you til the end. Such a true story and one that seemed to be breathing as I read.
Honestly, Diane you have to enter this somewhere.
I'm sharing this.
Blessings, Barb

wvdiane said...

Thank you so much, Barbie!!! (Does anyone call you, Barbie? For some bizarre reason, I like to put a long e sound on the end of ALL gal names.)
I wanted to press in with this one. It just poured out of me on Monday. Don't really know how. I DO want to enter it somewhere. The only possible category at WVWriters though, would be short story. Do you think it qualifies?

Janet, said...

Hi Diane, I saw this somewhere else, must have been Facebook, and commented. I love the story. You are very talented! Thanks for coming over to my blog and commenting. If you want, feel free to become one of my Blackberry Patch followers :o)

Elizabeth Young said...

An absolutely beautiful story that I completely related to. I said to my ex-husband (who I'm still very close to) recently, "When my time comes don't worry, because I will not look back."

NancyK@A Softer Voice said...

Hello, Diane
I just read your story at Beyond the Bend and enjoyed it so much I followed you here. This story is so moving and so honest. "Amen" to the other comments. What a future you have!
I'm fairly new to the world of writing, but I invite you to visit www.ASofterVoice.blogspot.com
I look forward to reading more of your work.
God Bless.

The Empress said...

Hello, Diane:

I followed you home from your piece at BlogHer today.

You had me so engaged, that I wished for antoher chapter in your story.

I came here, to get more of your writing.

I think it's captivating.

wvdiane said...

Hi Empress:) I love you! I just darted over to your blog and there's all kinds of fun stuff over there. I am so distressed that I missed the coffee and chocolate and art by a small child giveaway. Guess what? Since you're a new follower, you're entered for this month's (second ever) butterfly booty giveaway. I put together the package this am. I'm loving it. Lots of green. Lots of butterflies. I think it needs something . . . chocolate though.

writingdianet said...

Howdy Folks:

It's July 2012 now. I'm honored to report that this story has won a couple of prizes this year. First it placed in a small contest of mentored writers sponsored by Port Yonder Press, a small and cool indie publisher. Then it took second place in the Appalachian category of the 2012 West Virginia Writers competition (judged by Silas House!). This morning I was notified that it won second place in the West Virginia Fiction Competition sponsored by Shepherd University's Appalachian Heritage Literary Project. The stories that finaled were judged by Shepherd's 2012 writer-in-residence, Gretchen Moran Laskes. Woohoo!

To be honest, the version that won these contests is slightly different than this one, thanks to the editorial comments of a number of helpful and brilliant writer friends (Thanks Chila and Karin and Terry, to name a few.). If I remember, I'll post the link to the newer version when it's up on the Appalachian Heritage website later this year.

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