THE ASTHMATIC

by Howard Smead

            I had an agreement with my grandmother that whatever else she said in her will, in whichever way she chose to spread her considerable wealth among her offspring and their offspring, she would bequeath to me alone the chaise lounge from her bedroom. That particular piece of furniture, upon which many of my earliest memories are based, had always stood, somewhat awkwardly to be sure, by her dressing table by the bay window overlooking the garden and her cherished dogwoods. As a child I used to argue continually and not always successfully with her Boston Terriers — first Bonnie, then Sootie — over territorial rights and reclining privileges. As my grandmother's acuity faded into sentimentality, Sootie became Bonnie and, later Suzie-Q as these animals fused into one spoiled pedigree with a twenty-year life span. Suzie-Q's passing preceded my own birth by years I was told, but I am quite sure that she would have been just as obstinate about her chaise rights as her successors.

            The chaise caught the morning sun and seemed to retain so much residual warmth that it was just the spot for languor. Sootie became so enamored of it in fact that she had the nerve to demand that I get up so that she could lie down. Not move over, which I wouldn't have done, being at the age where I refused on principle to listen or agree with anyone, except my doctor who would not permit otherwise — but get up entirely. And her growl was not always so diffident that she could be easily dismissed. She had that in common with my doctor.

            But I was not the one who suffered most from the outrages these animals perpetrated. No, my problems with them began and ended with the chaise, a battle that I knew well in advance that I would win. It interested me more for their singularity of persistence, which I found amusing then and in retrospect still do.

            The task of walking this worrisome animal each and every day, rain or shine fell to Canie, who described himself as my "granddaddy's man." The sight of his bandied stroll down our warm neighborhood street with a nervous and kvetching Boston terrier in tow provided my young soul with one of its most reassuring constants. He traced the same path everyday out the door down the half moon of our front walk to the street, down to the end of the block and across and up the opposite side past our house. Poor Canie took forever to get himself and his charge from one side to the other, and it never rose to the surface of my thoughts that one unsecured glance or off-balanced tug and I would be eyewitness to a tragedy. Canie had formidable luck, it seems now in retrospect.

            The leash would inevitably get twisted around his spindly legs, causing so much confusion that I could see his lips moving in what I'm sure was something less than gentle words of advice to the spoiled dog. In winter when snow piled deep out front, Canie would methodically dress himself in layers of clothes and shovel a narrow line across the uneven brick, clear a two foot section onto the street, and take the dog out onto the street itself for their daily. Once the path was shoveled to it, the street, less traveled in bad weather, offered him more room in which to be maneuvered by the animal. He preferred snow, and often said so.

            After he was finished, he came back inside, unleashed the dog and made for his room in the basement. It was a deep and dark place in my grandparents home that I was told never to enter unless I was asked. Even though it was part of my family's property, it was akin to the United Nations building that although standing on domestic soil did not come under American jurisdiction, and for that reason I had no right to enter. A funny odor emanated from Canie's quarters, which he for years he'd shared with his "wife" Daisy, who cooked and cleaned for my grandmother, an odor I associated with basement cinderblock.

            Only much later, when my grandmother felt I was old enough did she tell me how Canie came to live with them. One day in July we were sitting on the long back porch eating hard shell crabs, well before I developed a reaction to them, she let me in on the family secret. Hardshells were a delicacy my grandmother artfully ate with small sterling silver oyster forks and cracked the shells with a matching sterling nutcracker. The delicate little mallet she used had a silver handle, and all three pieces were part of her pattern. In fact there was not a glass, dish, or piece of cutlery in her house that wasn't part of her pattern. For her there was no such thing as the good china or children's glasses. And never, ever paper napkins. She chased the Bay Seasoning with the Old Fashions by which she timed her days.

            Several years before I was born, late one night the entire household had been awakened by an eerie moaning coming from just outside the small porch off the sun parlor, a platform really with rickety wooden steps leading down to the driveway. The porch where we sat as she told me this was off the pantry on the opposite side of the house. My grandfather and my father, grumbling about tramps that had only recently ceased their Depression-era habit of coming to our backdoor in search of food, went down the steps together.

            My grandfather held his cold bedside blue .45 automatic like a flashlight out in front of him annoyed and thrusting it from side to side. They were very careful to close the sun porch door behind them in case anything untoward should happen. What they found upon stepping out onto that small porch was Canie lying at the bottom of the steps with a gash in his head and his face treacled with blood. He held, I was told, a bottle of Four Roses wine in his hand and when he saw my father and grandfather, he turned it upside down threatenly like a potato masher only to watch aghast as the contents spilled up his sleeve. Before anyone could do anything, Daisy came running up the driveway clutching her robe about her and snatched Canie up by the scruff of the neck and dragged him down the driveway around behind the house, through the garage and into her basement rooms.

            My grandfather and father arrived in time to prevent her from knocking Canie completely unconscious, and when she explained that this man was her husband and pleaded with my grandfather not to fire her, he impulsively told her that Canie could stay there with her if she wanted, relieved, I have always assumed, not to have used the pistol.  Daisy got her husband back, whom she hadn't seen for an unspecified period of time, and Canie became part of the family. My grandfather once remarked that he doubted they’d ever laid eyes on each other until that very moment. My father punked out at the sight of blood and was left limp on the gravely macadam for my mother to tend.

            Except for minding the dogs, I don’t think Canie ever regretted moving in. After Daisy died he replaced her with a multitude of cats, which he kept in his room with him. Four mornings a week for as long as I was there to watch him he went out through the garage to the neighborhood grocery and returned with several loaves of bread and a small brown bag containing several round tins, the purpose of which I discovered only recently.

            I had quite a time out on that back porch eating hard shell crabs while my grandmother told me tales from the house until the setting sun would and she would tell me it was time to go inside no matter how warm it was and whether we were finished eating. One more story, I protested. And with that reckless laugh better suited to Canie and his Sterno, she would launch into some epic that would set my imagination afire. So skilled at telling tales was she that always I could see myself there or see the light in the eyes of those she talked about with such a fine sense of proportion and drama.

            The chaise and the dogs are gone from her bedroom. Sootie's death was so miserable that more of her breed were forsworn, the removal of the chaise, while not accompanying Sootie's death was certainly facilitated by it. I am lying right now on it and have been for a long time, surrounded by bare dark wood, polished and clean, and lilting eucalyptus in a few crystal Waterford vases and the scented cotton suspended from the arms of the floor lamp beside the chaise.

            Every other morning either Dr. Blair’s wife or their housekeeper removes the cotton and re-soaks it with homeopathic essence. Whether or not it unburdens my lungs, the medicinal air adds to the venerable comfort of the room, my room, and despite Dr. Blair’s raised eyebrows, is as important to me as the breath it may help bring. Eucalyptus was my mother’s scent. I have yet to brooch the subject with Dr. Blair. He is chauvinistic about his methods of treatment; my grandmother calls him a pill pusher, but then unbelievably she bears her husband’s dislike for him.

            The mica panels on the lamp shade give off an iodine hue that I can best describe as quiet. Once out from the direct rays of the bulb this light suffuses as it subdues the entire room where  dust is not permitted to linger.  The armoire at the opposite end by the double doors that lead to the dinning room, which they no longer use, I think out of difference to me — was made at my grandfather's factory and is therefore as substantial as it is handsome. All my clothes fit its single rack and twin drawers. The shelf at the top is bare. My sweaters became so irritating despite their cashmere softness that I slipped them into the housecleaner's tote bag one morning when I should have been resting.

           At first I kept the armoire door closed, but I got so tired of gazing at myself from across the room I got up and opened it. Closed, it framed the physical space of my confined life. The house cleaner closes it. So, I rise without looking up into the mirror and prop it open with the ladder back chair Dr. Blair sits on when he examines me. The door is heavy and won’t drift shut, but the chair gives the arrangement an air of permanence.

            Before leaving for their Thursday night dinner, Dr. Blair and Kate come into my room. It is the only time when there are more than two people in this room, which is spacious enough for many more. They enter without knocking; Kate begins by opening my shirt for Dr. Blair to listen, pressing his cold stethoscope onto my chest. I can always smell the sherry on Kate's breath as I sit up and she eases open the white Oxford cloth shirts I lived in one button at a time, and removes the pillows from behind me. Dr. Blair practices what he claims to be the lost art of sounding my back for fluid and congestion, and he has developed wart-like callous on the back of the middle finger of his left hand from thump, thump, thumping it with the index finger of his right hand taking a sounding of my lungs and chest cavity.

           This past Thursday, after I had lain down again, been given my injections, and made comfortable, Dr. Blair began describing the research he had been involved in at Hopkins before he got married. Kate re-unbuttoned me and Dr. Blair traced my bronchial tubes with his pen. Sometimes I wonder of he hasn't worn tiny trenches in my skin. The walls of these tubes would be drawn convexly to show me how they collapse when mucus forms on them like icicles under the eaves. Then he clicked his pen several times and slipped it into his vest pocket. "I would have found some way to prevent this if I hadn't had a homesick wife," he said, and then, "Did you take your medicine? Is it making you ill?" I described the swirls of phlegm the emetic made me regurgitate each morning.

             He asked me if I knew what the words hedonism and mnemonic meant. He pronounced the first one head and intended these for my edification. I was aware that he had called my grandfather a hedonist one night out at the Country Club, which had resulted in a rolling fistfight the outcome of which was never discussed even after my grandfather died. It couldn’t have been pleasant because they never spoke again. When Dr. Blair's daughter and only child was killed, my grandfather said peevishly, "I'm not sure if I'll go to the funeral or not." It was the last time he ever referred to Dr. Blair, who never quite made it to my grandfather's funeral several years later. Dr. Blair has never mentioned my grandfather to me. His wife still refers to them both as fast friends. I later found out that the fight had really arisen over the new swimming pool and whether, if they had it installed, I should be allowed to swim in it. My grandfather said yes; Dr. Blair threatened to block construction; my grandfather called him a name and that was when Dr. Blair used the word hedonism.  I suspect that my grandfather did not know what it meant. Perhaps Dr. Blair wanted me to be sure of its definition for that reason. Doubtful. It’s more likely he saw that aspect of my grandfather in me. For sure though, hedonism acted as a strong mnemonic device.

             Maybe as things disappeared from my life: parents, grandfather, reading, dogs, food, he took care that I found ways to hold their memories. Many evenings I would spend time reading by the solitary light by the chaise in my grandmother's bedroom. Until reaction to printer’s ink and the chemicals in the wood pulp caused such a reaction I could no longer hold them in my hands long enough to turn the page. They were quiet nights, notable for their calming effect and, except for the rachitic sounds of my breathing — wondering if they were as loud as I imagined. The only other noise came from my methodical page-turning. Often I would doze off and awaken several hours later to discover my grandmother's curly head sticking out from beneath the mountain of blankets she sleeps under year round and a half-finished Old Fashion on the night stand, its orange slice smiling slickly at me. I would slip out of the room and down the steps and spend some time amusing myself wondering from room to room examining every object in them; of then tracing imaginary tours through the various French provincial maps framed and hanging over the corner sofa. Occasionally I ventured outside, but these treks became less and less frequent until I began to envision the front door as opening into a morass of swamp lands and peat bogs, none of which I would never experience and convinced myself I didn't care to.

             When my grandfather came home at night — late, we sometimes encountered each other in the hallway or possibly the pantry where I would sneak some of my grandmother's petite fours.  Those delicious chocolate-covered crème layered cubes tempted me well past good sense. If I got to them early enough in the evening, my breathing was normal by morning.

              My grandfather who knew fully that I was forbidden anything with chocolate and was, I suspect, pained to have such a namby-pamby living in his house, when he caught me delivered splendidly restrained lectures in which his voice would rise towards the end of each of his contorted sentences in accordance with the importance of the point he was trying to make. When he fell silent, I would slip by him being careful not to peer at him too closely least I discover any more about him than he felt I should know and quickly made myself a cup of peppermint tea. I offered him a cup once. He wrinkled his nose over it and said to me without raising his eyes, "What for?"

            That was while he was still alive, of course. I think now that I get much more satisfaction from the remembrance of his vast personality as I viewed it through his contact with my grandmother and occasionally others. Their dialogue was exceptional for its brevity and the degree of communication contained within their cryptic remarks. The only time my grandfather had occasion to speak at length in his home was when he came across me in the pantry at night; and that accounted for the convoluted nature of his speech. Whenever my grandmother desired to stress her dissatisfaction with her husband she addressed him by his middle name, which was Julius. Upon hearing her use that word, my ears would perk up and in spite of my effort not to listen, I would strain to the point of exhausting myself by holding my breath to catch hold of the reason for my grandmother's ire. Invariably he would offer a grunt and a small laugh with himself as though he was enjoying some private joke, in response to whatever she said to him.

            One the night he barged into her bedroom and with a strangled voice told her that the board had voted to divide his duties into three separate jobs. His temper being what it was, he resigned on the spot (I'm not sure he had much choice) and stormed out. My grandmother's reaction, coming immediately and resolutely, revealed the depth of her understanding. She rolled over and slipped open the telephone stand and removed the sterling wine casque and two small sterling glasses. I never knew until then that the ridged white front panel was actually a raised-panel door; which I could see from the chaise was empty except for the wine casque and the two glasses. Later that night I discovered it did not contain wine. "Bastards," said my grandfather.

            My grandmother held out the glass to him. He drank as she filled the second glass and handed it to him. "No one knows as much about wood as you do, Julius. It's just that horrible Pangborn Bradford. He never forgave you for saving his company." The gentle way she said Julius gave me the feeling I had been incorrect about them both.

            After a while he left the room. It was the tremendous crash, in his bedroom that permitted me to stop pretending to be asleep. The longer he stayed on the edge of her bed, the more difficult it was for me to control my breathing; so his departure came as a relief. When he fell my grandmother phoned Dr. Blair. "Heavenly days, he's down in the bathroom," she said without any greeting or introduction. By that time I was out of the room and did not hear the rest. This was on a Thursday night. My grandfather was dead by the time the ambulance arrived. I'm not exactly sure who it was my grandmother spoke to because Dr. Blair didn't call us until hours later. He spent Thursday nights with Kate at her apartment. I finally summoned the ambulance when no one came after half and hour. I sat on the side of the bed and watched my grandfather slip into a coma and open his eyes for the last time.

            When his lips stopped their slight thrumming with the last slight rush of breath, I knelt over him and carefully trying to avoid eye contact with all but his chest upon which I placed my ear. I was unable to hold my breath long enough to detect a thump so short was my breathing, but as he lay quietly I knew. It could have been my parents who had died rushing home from Florida when my grandmother had reported Dr. Blair's prognosis. "How is he?" my mother had asked. "Fine," Daisy told her. "He's not fine," my grandfather said as she grabbed the phone. "He's sick as hell."

            My grandfather was correct. My eyes were swollen shut, the whites had become gelatin, the skin of my cheeks blotchy and itched worse than chickenpox. Worst of all I could not get my breath properly. It frightened me so much I cried, which angered my grandfather and scared me. And just because I spent a few hours with one of the cats in the basement. I haven't been within twenty feet of one since, but no matter. That little white cat became the key that opened the torture chamber inside my body. As I grew I did not outgrow my illness. By the time I reached adolescence I was spending most of my time on my grandmother's chaise.

            When the ambulance arrived and determined my grandfather's death the very next thing the paramedics did was give me a shot of adrenalin so I could breath again. I felt like my grandfather was pulling me into the grave along with him until I the drug blew my windpipes apart and cool air rushed in.

            As I became more and more dependant upon that chaise, I also and quite without realizing it became more and more dependent upon my grandparents. My grandmother's love was the only affection I had as a child, although my filial devotion to my grandfather was very strong. He was a figure of towering strength, quick expression and magisterial self-possession.        I think now that he may have likened himself to Teddy Roosevelt. For his sake though, I hope it was a comparison he never made publicly. Because I hold me memory of him sacred and I wouldn't want it disturbed by any new revelation no matter how profound or insightful. I knew they would prove unkind.

            Only after my grandfather's apoplectic death did I come to realize the depth of my grandmother's devotion to him. She had always seemed so overwhelmed by her husband's personality. But there she was — the violet hanky pinned to her bosom like a flag of kindness, her rosy cheeks bright with rouge, the edges of which never quite blended into her skin and that curly black hair. Canie told me that my grandmother's curly hair was a sure sign that her still water ran righteously deep, as he put it. "How deep?" I would ask and he would laugh his rich laugh and ruffle my hair which always had the result of reminding me that I hadn't a curl on my head, just straight brown hair that always fell into my eyes and always seemed to need cutting.

            Surrendering me to Dr. Blair wasn't all that easy for my grandmother. For her I suppose it was like giving up the last vestiges of her family. With me gone that left only Canie in the basement with his cats. But my health deteriorating as rapidly as the last snow melts at spring, prompted her to acquiesce and the move was completed two weeks later. I am now under constant care, and I talk to her every afternoon at 4 P.M. I am free from Canie's cats and the dander that drove up through the floor and into my chest. I suspect that my presence in the Blair's spacious and dark North Potomac Street apartment convenient across from Schindle's Drug Store and a quick re-supply of medicine has more to do with Dr. Blair's irreconciled differences with my grandfather than the state of my health, as though through me all the scars of a life-long friendship that collapsed at the very end is healing even I dwaddle around in a perpetual physical malaise. We both agreed at the time that it was for the best even though she didn't come to believe it until weeks and perhaps months later when it became apparent that I was holding my own at long last. I hoped and believed that there was a real chance my health would correct itself. After all, this was Dr. Blair's chosen area of specialization. He could help me if no one else could, with those witches brew concoctions Kate shot into my biceps with numbing (urgent) regularity.

            And so I am locked into a world that is at once my prison and my salvation, having all the necessities within reach and my comfort as amply provided for as I could legitimately hope and expect. I reached that point long ago where memory became an inadequate provider. The world it furnished me was bare indeed, peopled like a room with too little furniture, stripped bare to the essentials, lacking detail and ambivalence, which impelled me to populate my life a priori. Such languid living rigor gave me an opportunity to try out any situations and variations, each seemingly complete in themselves.

            Ultimately, each gave way to a newer possibility for which I hadn't planned, for which I had no reason to anticipate, obliging my mind by considering seriously its most recent creation — reassembling those facts I had as constants and ordering the world with them. Sometimes these schemes worked, often they didn't. Always I was secure in the knowledge that something new would pop up to fill the vacuum. It always seemed to happen that way. An optimistic new view of my place and role in the world I knew would materialize as though I possessed such kinetic powers to make it real only to be dashed by an anomalous horn blowing on the streets nearbye — or an accidentally overheard, or was it? — snatch of conversation between Dr. Blair and his wife drifting like scented breeze down the long paneled hallway. Or perhaps, an odd glance from Kate after one of my reasoned observations about my health. Or the weather outside as reflected by the sounds I heard. Anything really, anything unexpected — and I would have to set to work rebuilding what I thought could not be torn down, each time learning from what had preceded it, and allowing just that much more for chance. Although after so long I began to get the feeling that chance had very little to do with it. That no matter how much I prefigured the possibilities I always left a tiny flaw in the superstructure that could permit its collapse. I never had anything figured out because I had nothing to go on.

            Perhaps nothing was accidentally overheard. Perhaps I was intended to hear the comments, see the off glances, be aware of the anomaly in a certain routine — all to remind me of my transient status — that didn't feel so transient and hadn't for a long time. That, of course, was before this morning. There had been nothing unusual about the smell of breakfast floating into my room, no hurried footsteps or hushed silences that might be carrying a secret. After I had eaten though, there seemed to me that a strange quiet had befallen the Blair's apartment. The type of quiet I associated with night, except that this stillness was internal only for the customary daytime noises made themselves known to me and, I suppose, the Blair's and Kate as well.

             By late morning when their cook hadn't come in to take away my dishes and clean around me, this silence had turned into intentional neglect. As I slipped from the chaise and into my robe I felt a stirring of dread within me, which I had not felt before, ever. Whenever I knew an attack was coming on, it saddened or angered me. But I was so busy mentally preparing myself for the siege that was sure to come that the notion of dread simply never entered my mind. But there it was. temptation being what it is, I slid open the doors to the dinning room and peeked in. Nothing. Not even a finger of dust to mar the undernourished tranquility. Through the opposite door, however, the door used to gain access to my room and one my instincts told me would hold only revelations should there be any, but through which I purposefully delayed looking — was more than a mere finger of dust on the smooth surfaces of my world. Down that long hall I could just make out a solitary figure almost cowering in the quietness it had invaded. Why wasn't someone there to intercept that poor soul? I was about to call out to him but with almost imperceptible movements, so slow but so inexorably deliberate, he started moving in my direction. Unconsciously I took a step back towards my room before I realized what I was doing, and upon catching myself, I forced myself forward, embarrassed that I might appear frightened by this poor man who himself appeared intimidated by his surroundings. As he moved towards me, I began to see, though, that what I thought was obsequiousness was more like reluctance. And the stoop of his shoulders more like practiced obeisance than the fright of a child shut in a dark closet. Still, he seemed to be feeling his way through a fun house at the Conococheague County Fair. "Yes?" I said surprised. He allowed that to fall into the slithering noises his shoes made on the polished wooden floor. From his pocket he took a long time removing his grayed handkerchief, unfolded it and swiped the sadness from his face. He refolded it carefully as you might fold your money and returned it to his pocket.

             "May I help you?" I said, deciding that I would speak this with just the slightest firmness, as though I shouldn’t have to ask. But when I heard the unsteadiness in my voice, I knew some part of me sensed yet another turn that I’d failed to anticipate. If I had a premonition, this was it. He moved towards me faster now, my faltering having somehow invited him. At first I wondered if this ancient man did indeed have evil intentions and was reacting to what he judged palpable fear. But then after what seemed like minutes, he lifted his head and I saw that it was Canie whom I had not seen him in the years I had been living with Dr. Blair.

            My first reaction was relief. But poor Canie looked so feeble, his eyes were absolutely mournful with rheum that he appeared almost blind. That groaning, weary voice in my grandmother's basement was standing in front of me in such intense agony that I immediately put a hand out to him and started to guide him towards the chair. But he resisted. When I looked at him his resistance appeared to startle him for his eyes widened and his lips parted as though to utter an apology for refusing my generosity. That was when I felt the first cords of tightening in my chest and the pinging of my breath that presaged an attack.

            Poor Canie had cat dander all over him. It shook loose of him like invisible snow falling from a tree limb in the wind. I knew in minutes I would be incapacitated and that because of such a direct assault on my system this would be an attack I’d spend weeks recovering from.

             I backed away from him and into my room, closing the door as I did, not from Canie. I hoped he understood this, but from the intense discomfort he carried with him, I saw he didn't. At the last instant he thrust out his foot with surprising alacrity and prevent the door from closing. I collapsed onto the chaise as though I was already under siege. He pushed the door open and pressed into the room. I should have known. This was the one thing I could have prepared myself for. But as I had always allowed these loopholes, I encouraged my mind to play this despicable trick on me. Old Canie, who must have been 80-years-old by now, lifted his head once again and said to me through the tears running down his leathery cheeks, "Your grandmother's went and died."

           

howard@howardsmead.com     © Howard Smead 2017