I’m not afraid of the cough anymore. It’s worse now, sure. Sometimes,
it sounds like cats fighting, bad plumbing. Lately, it doesn’t sound like
any one thing and nothing natural, but Mom says it doesn’t hurt. She pulls
inhalers from her bra the way a magician pulls silk scarves from his mouth. Sometimes,
Mom spits up a little into one of the Kleenexes she also keeps in her bra. Her
face goes red. She can’t speak, but she says it doesn’t hurt. She
exhales before she puts the inhaler to her lips, leaving room for the medicine
when she inhales. Watching her is how I finally figured out how to smoke pot.
She’s OK afterwards, a little hoarse, but OK, and this cough, some version
of it, is the way I’ve found her for almost thirty years, in the aisles
of the Acme or the Salvation Army. It’s a sort of radar, each hack louder
as I close in.
She’s had a good day. Lunch at Cracker Barrel. Shoes for Lauren at PayLess
and now a final trip to Walgreens. The shopping cart is prophylactic, something
to lean on if she starts up again. She tries to get me to take one, too, in case
I lose my balance, but I’m feeling cocky.
I head down the card aisle because it’s the farthest to the left from the
entrance, excepting cosmetics. I have no interest in cosmetics and I always travel
left to right. Mom wheels away toward the middle. She’s in her red outfit:
red capris, red v-neck t-shirt and long-sleeve red t-shirt over it so no one
can see her arms. I’ve worked my way down to sinus medications when she
starts coughing. Nothing major. I head up to paperbacks, try to make out the
titles with those first two letters missing, the ones I can’t get back.
Language is forgiving. I fill in the blanks. I figure there’s nothing I
want to read, but I like looking at the covers, picking them up, feeling the
raised surface of the smallest paperbacks, wondering why the publishers do that,
raise the lettering or the outline of the cover art. I like being able to get
close to things, not to have the cart or a walker between me and everything else.
In the meantime, the coughing has gotten worse, constant bark-like, but nothing
like the noises I’ve heard her make just sitting at the kitchen table,
struggling to pull the phlegm up the knots of her scarred bronchi. So I’m
surprised to see her between candy and magazines with a circle of people forming
around, lifting their arms to hold hands.
“Is it OK if we pray for you?” a man asks. He’s wearing khakis
and a short-sleeve button-down shirt, glasses. Beside him is an older woman in
Best Grandma” t-shirt and on the other side a teenage boy with a buzzcut
in jeans and a UT shirt. Mom continues to cough, louder and more desperately.
lower their heads without waiting for an answer.
I walk toward them as fast as I can, the products on the shelf blurring with
movement. Stores making me dizzy. I should have been more cautious or stayed
with her. Up close, Mom’s eyes are big and round like a caught animal,
and I can see she’s trying to get the inhaler out before they open their
eyes back up, before they catch her with her hand down her shirt.
I feel the stumble before it’s out of control. I have time to correct,
but I don’t. I let myself sway into the shelf enough to knock down a box
of Russell Stovers so that when the impromptu prayer group looks up, it’s
at me, and not at Mom who has managed to pull the emergency inhaler out and exhale
and then inhale deeply. I pull myself upright before the group can encircle me.
“I’m good,” I say as they help put the boxes on the shelf.
the car I can’t tell if she’s been laughing or crying, her face is
wet and red and she dabs at it with more Kleenex, still out of breath from her
“Did they pray for you, too?” she asks, reaching behind me to shove
a handful of used tissues into the trash bag behind the front seat. By the time
her at her garage, the coughing has stopped entirely and she remembers the abandoned
“Darn it. Now I don’t have anything sweet.”
But I know she does, some kind of cake or cookie is always in her fridge or on
the countertop. I offer to go back.
“They don’t have the ones I really like anyway. Fastbreak. So hard
and when you do they’re never fresh. Next time I’m going to the gas
station. They’re better there.”
She hits the button on her key chain and the garage door goes up. She leans over
to kiss me, thanks me for driving. She doesn’t rub the lipstick in the way
she used to even when I was in my thirties, and I don’t rub it away, either.