by Teague von Bohlen
They said the kid had asthma when we took him to the clinic. Chronic asthma, like there could be any other kind with a disease that won’t let you breathe. The way I see it, either you can breathe or you can’t, and there’s no more than two ways about it. Still, if it were left up to me, I’d get the kid out of the house and into the outdoors. Away from the heat of Phoenix, with its belching freeways and its concrete walls choking the wind. Get him out into the desert, where you can sit in the shadow of something bigger than him, where you can smell the mountains, where everything is clean. Take him fishing with me sometime at Lake Roosevelt, maybe let him feel the slick of a fish. He’s five now, he can do it if I help him, I say. But as Terri sometimes reminds me in our worst moments, the boy’s not mine.
Terri’s my wife, three years now. The boy’s name is Justin, one of those 90s names that’s got no earth to it. Not like John, which is not only my name, but the name of all the Snyder men, from way back. Not like Frank, who I worked alongside for nearly twenty years before a plat full of brick snapped its rope and came down on him. And not like Horace, who worked for nearly sixty years at the feed lot near where I grew up before he dropped over of a heart attack there in his office with the portable radio and the A/C going full-blast. Those were names of men, men with nothing more going for them but a strong handshake and a willingness to do anything to support their family. Even if the kid ain’t theirs.
But the boy’s name isn’t the problem. The problem is that he can’t breathe. Terri goes into convulsions when he starts wheezing, starts breathing hard herself, like she could take in the air for him. I just lift him up and get him to the hospital as quick as I can. The doctors give him some medicine, and he’s all right again, and then I take him home. That’s the way of it. And now, when I hear Justin come into the bedroom late at night—when he’s having trouble, I always hear him before I see him—I think two things. First, that the poor kid is hurting, and that I have to do something for him. And second, that I’m going to have to try to wring another fifty dollars for the deductible from an emergency room visit out of my next paycheck. I actually think that, God help me, I do. The kid is dying there on my shag carpeting and I’m worrying about maybe getting the cable disconnected, or having to cut back on my fishing trips. I feel ashamed of myself, and I don’t tell Terri. I don’t want her to leave me, and I don’t want Justin to leave either, no matter what it costs.
It only happens in the middle of the night. Terri and I, we’re sound asleep, her on her side, me on mine. We start out together, my arm over her side, hand on her stomach, holding her, but soon she shifts and I know that means she’s getting uncomfortable, so I move back over to my side and sleep. It’s what we do. Anyway, this is when Justin comes in, hair all a mess and bending at the waist slightly, trying to catch his breath. I can hear his lungs from the bed. “You okay, champ?” I say. I’m always the one who wakes up. Terri sleeps through it all. I know it’s a stupid question, too, because the kid never comes in without needing a trip to the hospital—he’s too polite, I guess, too scared to wake us up, even though neither Terri or I have given him a reason to be. “You need to go to the E.R.?”
He nods, leans against the wall. It’s all the boy can do.
I tell Terri that we’re going, and she wakes up a little and gives Justin a hug and a kiss on the head and tells him to get better. She’s barely awake—sometimes she doesn’t recall this, and wakes up alone in our bed and realizes that we must have gone. I get Justin his coat on—we don’t bother trying to change his clothes anymore, since it just makes him wheeze harder and serves no real purpose, since he’s five, after all, and he could wear his jammies to Church and no one would say boo. I pull some clothes on, grab my Diamondbacks cap to cover my bedhead, and we’re out the door in less than five minutes. Terri is already back to sleep.
This is sounding like I’m saying that Terri’s a bad mother, but I’m not, and she’s not. In fact, she’s one of the best mothers I know, always there for her son, always putting him first, ahead of her own needs. She was a couple of years into an accounting degree when Justin came along, and she realized quickly that she had to make money now. So she waits tables, now, full-time. And since she works early at the diner, and I work swing at the plant, we made this deal a long time back that I’d do the night thing. It’s just easier, and besides, it’s given me a way to be with Justin a little bit more, to really be his Dad in a way that I don’t normally get to be, taking care of him and everything. The kid hasn’t seen his real Dad in three years—the guy ran out on them one day, and Terri hasn’t been able to find the guy since, not for child support or alimony or anything. Justin says that he doesn’t remember his Dad, anyway. I know, because I asked him.
Justin wants to be an E.R. doc when he grows up, like on TV. He watches that show in reruns—he’s asleep by the time they come on regular time—and he just eats it up, the way that the docs and nurses and everyone run around saving everyone. He gets real excited when there’s a kid on there having an asthma attack, which is a little too rare, if you ask me, since half the time when we show up at the emergency room, there’s at least one other kid trying to breathe, too. Its real common, they tell me. I read a magazine article in the waiting room of the hospital one time that said that it might come from cockroaches or old tires or something, but when I told Terri about it, she looked at me like I was a dumbass and asked me if I’d seen any roaches—or for that matter, tires—in the house. I had to admit, I hadn’t.
She sometimes gets real upset when I talk to her about Justin. This time was no different. “It’s not the flu,” she said. “You can’t catch it. You just have it or you don’t. That’s it.”
There’s not much a guy can say to that.
“You let that woman go, John, there’ll be a line of fellas waiting for her. And I just might be heading it up.” This was Harris, whose first name was Leslie, so you can imagine why he went by his second. We were re-coupling a pipe down in the undercarriage of the Motorola plant. We didn’t know nuts about what Motorola was doing above-ground. Me and Harris were strictly mechanical maintenance.
“I’ll tell Joanne that you said that,” I smiled. Joanne was Harris’ wife. Terri and I went out with them some before Justin’s health got too bad to let us enjoy being away, too bad for us to feel comfortable leaving the kid with a sitter anymore. Joanne was a good egg, but churchy. The kind of girl you know talks about your sins instead of hers on Sundays.
“Hell, John,” Harris said, gesturing with his wrench. “You don’t know how good you got it. Old guys like us finding a good woman and a family all in one swoop? Doesn’t happen.”
“Give me a break. Forty ain’t old.”
“You kidding? You remember how old we thought our Dads were when we were kids? And this was when they were what, thirty, thirty-five? We’re past our prime, John. If we were cavemen, we’d be the elders of the tribe.”
“Did cavemen have tribes?”
“I think you’re thinking of Indians.”
“So what did cavemen have, Mr. History Channel?”
“I dunno. Not tribes.”
Harris shook his head, veed-out his fingers and pointed at his eyes. “Focus,” he said. “I’m not talking about cavemen, John. I’m talking about life, and what you can expect. Face it, man, we’ve all got the death sentence. It’s just unscheduled.”
“Yeah, yeah,” I said, starting to gather up my tools. The pipe was pretty much done, and our meal-break was coming up. “I get it. All I said was that Terri and I aren’t getting on like we used to. Something’s different.”
I shook my head. “You don’t want to hear this.”
“Who’s here asking?”
I looked at him. We’d been friends for nearly 20 years, and gone through some rough shit. Two marriages for Harris had him living on something like a third of what he brought home, and on top of that, he had a kid at Mesa Community College who both took his money and hated his guts. He slept on my couch for nearly a year—in fact, that’s one of the things that finally broke up my disaster of a first marriage, which wasn’t really a marriage at all, but a commonlaw thing. But that don’t stop the lawyers from taking half of everything. But yeah, Harris and me were tight. We’d seen it all, we thought, and then some. So I bit. “Okay,” I said. “How often do you and Joanne have sex?”
He rolled his eyes. “What am I, Dr. Phil?”
“I told you,” I said.
“Okay, okay,” he said. “You serious?”
“Yeah,” I nodded.
“Okay,” he said, looking at me sort of slantways, in case I was really just kidding him and ready to pull the rug out. But I wasn’t, of course, and he knew that. “I don’t know. Maybe twice a week?”
“Yeah,” I said. “That’s what I thought.”
“Sometimes more,” he added, “sometimes less.”
“What’s this all about? You and Terri having bedroom problems?” The not-that-I-really-want-to-hear-this was understood. “You need to score some Viagra? I hear it’s great, not that I use it myself, but you know, my brother goes on these trips down into Nogales, and gets all sorts of cheap meds. Buys one of those big clay statues of the Virgin Mary and stuffs her up with prescription stuff that would cost like ten times as much here at home. I could talk to him for you.”
“It’s not Viagra,” I said. “It’s just… we don’t even try anymore.”
“Oh.” Harris deflated a bit. “Well, you’re working opposite shifts to take care of the kid, right? And with the boy sick and all, I don’t know. Maybe that’s all it is.”
“Maybe,” I said. “Or maybe it’s more.”
“Well, fix it, John,” Harris said. “It’s what we do. Fix stuff.”
“Yeah,” I said. And then: “Smuggling shit stuffed up the Virgin Mary’s skirt? There’s gotta be a special hell for that.”
Harris laughed. “Let’s eat, man. I’ll buy the burritos.”
A week later, I sold Harris my fishing boat for three-hundred. The doctors had said that Justin needed a nebulizer, what he called a breathing machine, to have at home. It was basically a small version of what they gave him at the hospital, so it would save us time and money, in the long run, from all the ER visits we’d been taking. And, if the breathing machine didn’t help, we could still run in for a shot of adrenaline, if we had to. It was easy.
I didn’t much miss the boat. I’d been taking fewer trips out anyway, and Terri wouldn’t let me take Justin with me either, so it had been just sitting alongside the house for most of the summer. And Harris promised to invite me along whenever he took it to Roosevelt, so we could drown some worms together. It was all good. Or at least it was until Terri lost her job.
She’d been waitressing at this place on Mill Avenue, this New-York-style deli place that catered to students from Arizona State and professionals from downtown Tempe. It was a pricey place for a deli, but that worked out better in the end, since it kept the misers away, and she was able to take home pretty good tip money. But she got fired when a group of grad students showed up, camped in her section for something like four hours sipping free refills of coffee over the $8 check that she’d left for them twenty minutes after they sat down. She asked them if they could clear out, to make room for the lunch rush, and they reported her, and she got fired. There’s probably more to the story, but that’s what she told me, and I didn’t see a reason to push for it. We had bigger issues to face.
The most immediate one was, of course, the money. Terri’s tips were what we’d been using to pay for Justin’s medicine, little puffers and pills with names like comic-book villains: Vanceril, Albuterol, Theodur, Brethine. My paycheck was enough to keep the house going, and pay for food and electric and gas for the truck, but we were going to have to tighten our belts until Terri found another job. And the thing is, she didn’t want to.
She told me this one night while we were in bed, not having sex. She was crying, and I was only making out about half of what she was saying, but I got the gist. “I want to take care of my son,” she said. “I want to make him better.” I told her that her staying home and taking care of Justin was fine, but it wasn’t going to cure his asthma, which was true, but only made her cry harder, so much that I couldn’t make out anything that she was saying anymore.
Two nights later, Justin came into the bedroom wheezing. I got up, as I always did, but I was in the living room, dripping the medicine into the breathing machine mouthpiece, when I realized that Terri didn’t have work in four hours. So maybe she should be the one sitting on the floor with Justin, measuring out solutions, mixing it with saline, turning on the switch, and then sitting with the boy, watching him take heaving breaths, listening to the low thrubbing of the machine. “Stay here,” I said to Justin. “You okay?”
Justin nodded. He was tired, too, even though the meds sometimes made him jumpy.
I rolled over, and pulled the covers up over me. From behind me, I could hear Terri get up, could picture her sitting up halfway, not yet fully awake, and it slowly dawning on her what I was telling her. It was her turn. She wanted to take care of the boy. So I let her.
“Eggs on the stove. I’m back to bed,” she said, setting her coffee down on the side table and getting up. “I had a long night.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I know how that is.” I still didn’t fully know what the fight was about, and didn’t know how to hold up my end.
“Yeah, right,” she said. “You made that perfectly clear last night, John.” She strode into the bedroom, and shut the door.
I ate the cold eggs she’d left in the pan for me, and put some peanut butter and margarine on a piece of bread and ate that, too. I knew I was supposed to follow her to the bedroom, but I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t. I let my frustration grow as I sat there, eating. By the time I got around to pouring myself coffee, I was pretty pissed off at the whole thing. What in the hell had I done wrong?
It was just about then that Terri showed up to tell me. “You know, I can do without your holier-than-thou crap, especially in the middle of the damn night,” she said, and flumped back down on the couch where she’d been sitting before.
“I thought you were back to bed.”
“I’ve had too much coffee already,” she said, and picked up the cup she’d set down earlier, and took another sip.
“Look,” I said. “I don’t know what in the hell you’re on about, Terri, but…”
“What I’m on about, John, is the way you treated me last night. The way you’ve been treating me for weeks now. Why do you think I lost my damn job?”
“It’s my fault that you lost your job? How’s that, exactly?”
“I don’t know!” She was yelling now. “But it’s all wrapped up in there together. You take care of Justin, and sell your boat, and get up with him all the time, and I’m just the chick who brings home some extra cash and makes your breakfast and fucks you now and then.”
“Now and then is stretching it,” I said, and immediately realized it was the wrong thing.
She glared at me. Terri has this look like the sun—look directly into it, you’ll go blind. “Fuck you,” she said.
“Promises, promises,” I said.
“You are such an ass,” she said.
“So leave,” I said.
“Gladly,” she said. “We’ll be out of the house by tonight.”
“Fine,” I said. But it wasn’t, and I knew it, and I hoped she knew it. If I was a wiser man, I would have gone after her, and made sure she did. But I wasn’t. Instead, I sat down at the kitchen table, and felt heat rising off the back of my neck. I don’t know if it was anger or the heat of the morning sun, but either way, it burned.
“We’re going to the desert,” I said that afternoon. Justin had just gotten home from school, and Terri had made some efforts—halfhearted, I hoped—to pack up some of their clothes. I’d called in sick to the plant—Harris said he’d cover for me, and that I owed him the beers next time we went out fishing—and spent most of the afternoon out buying supplies for camping. It was Friday. I had a plan. “The Superstitions.”
“What?” Terri said.
“Cool,” Justin said.
“It’s not cool, and we’re not going,” Terri told Justin. “We have things to do.”
“It’s Friday, none of us have anything to do tomorrow, and we’re going up into the mountains for the night. I’ve already packed everything—all you guys need is a change of clothes, if you want one.”
“What is this, John?” Terri said.
“Can we bring the X-Box?” Justin asked.
“No,” I said, “but we’ll have plenty to do, so don’t worry about that. You can bring some of your comic books, though, if you want to. We can read them around the fire tonight.”
“Ghost stories?” he asked.
“Maybe. And I’ve already packed the marshmallows.”
“Cool!” Justin said again, and ran back into his room to gather up his things.
“You pack anything besides marshmallows?” Terri had her hand on her hip.
“Hot dogs for me and the boy, turkey dogs for you. Chips, some fruit. Soda and beer in the cooler, already iced. A pan for eggs and bacon in the morning. Water in a jug. Coffee and a pot, cream in with the sodas. I think we’re good.”
“What about Justin’s medicine?”
“Already in the truck.”
“And what if he has an attack out there?”
“I’m packing his breathing machine. If he needs it, and I doubt he will, but if he does, I went out and bought an adapter to plug it into the truck.” I grinned.
“Well, John,” Terri said. “You certainly seem to have thought of everything.”
“I hope so,” I said. She shook her head, but gently, and I thought I saw a smile from her as she passed and went back into the bedroom to pack.
That night, after the hot dogs and the marshmallows and the fire dying, the three of us lay out in the bed of my truck, on an old family quilt, and watched the desert stars. We were in the Superstitions, and the sky was as clear here as washed glass. There was a breeze cutting down from the north, and the night was already starting to cool everything off. We heard tiny lizards darting about in the scrub, but other than that, it was quiet. I took a deep breath, and told Justin to do the same. Breathe it in, I told him. Breathe it in.
We told stories, all of us. The story I told was a true one, about me when I was ten, and my family had a small horse farm off Sandario Road southwest of Tucson, and I took off into the desert to the north one day to try to find a watering hole that a friend of mine swore was out there. He’d seen it, he said, swam in it, let his horse drink and cool himself. I believed him, and so off I rode one morning, on my horse Mack, with my hat and a full canteen of water and some beef jerky tucked into my pockets. By noon, I’d gotten myself lost, and Mack was lathered, pulling at the reins, and I had to struggle to keep him on. I knew enough to try to beat the mid-day heat, so we stopped for a bit in the shade of a shallow wash, and I had to tie Mack to a dead tree to keep him from bolting. I started off again that afternoon, after Mack and I had finished the last of our water and my jerky was long gone. By the time night fell, I knew I was in trouble, and I didn’t know what to do. Mack and I wandered in circles for a long time, it seemed—I saw my own tracks more than once—and finally, I gave up. I let Mack have the reins he’d been bucking for since mid-day, and he set off at a quick trot. I was sure I’d never see home again, of course, but then, all of a sudden, there it was, off in the distance. I saw my father, first, on his horse, and he rode out at a full gallop to meet me. He’d called in friends of his to help look for me, and the sheriff, too, but I’d come back. I was in trouble, of course, but I was so glad to be home that I didn’t care. Mack had saved me. He’d saved me from my own bull-headedness. I could have been home in time for lunch, if I could’ve seen what Mack was trying to do, but I didn’t. I couldn’t. In the end, I had to give up in order to come home.
Justin was asleep before I finished my story, and I knew he was asleep. By the end of me telling it, I was just talking to Terri. She looked down at her sleeping son, ran her fingers through his sandy hair. A warm breeze fluttered over us.
“I’d better not be the horse in this metaphor,” she said smiling.
“No,” I said. “You’re me. We’re all me. You, me, Justin. It’s us, together.”
“Yeah,” she said, and I could feel something fall away from her, then, something that had been there for a long time but I hadn’t even noticed until it was gone. In that moment, I saw her in the light of the desert foothills, reflecting off her hair the color of the mountains, her eyes looking at me, smiling in a way that I hadn’t seen in a while. She kissed me with promise, and for the first time in a long time, it was enough.
“I’m scared, John,” she finally said.
“Me too,” I said.
“I don’t want to leave,” she said.
“I don’t want you to,” I said.
“I’m scared,” she said again, and she put her hand on Justin’s shoulder.
I held her tightly, and she held me. Soon, I realized she was asleep, and I began to drift off, too. The three of us slept like that all night, buoyed by the sound of the wind in the ocotillo, bending around the saguaro, moving us all together towards a morning we could see coming but couldn’t understand.
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