Friday, January 24, 2003

Jagged, Gritting Teeth (Part IV)
The tea warmed her hands as she held the mug to her chin. She peered through the steam that lingered on the lenses of her bifocals. Her face was marked with the lines and liver spots of old age. Deep channels of life and experience etched into the once smooth porcelain of her countenance. She put down her tea and reached over to the smokeless ashtray and after she brought her hand back up to her lips it was at that moment that she rejoined in communion with her life long friend.

"I should have taken better care of these photos, " she exhaled. "But for so long I had no wish to return to these memories."

A quick look at the fashions worn by the figures and one could instantly traverse the decades to a time long past and tastes long since abandoned.

"It was our first house, Rocky and I. You can see the neighbors house next door. They were nice people. Invited us over for many a barbecue and high ball. Czervenka was their name. I don't know, we were suspicious at first."

Each turn of the photo album - the black pages and the worn corner mounts (some missing) exposed multiple angles of a life from the past. Of lives from the past.

"Kids would run around the neighborhood. Dogs chasing them. Some being chased. Some with soda cans tied to their tails. I would have gone out and disciplined them myself if I was their mother. Too many kids able to run around, fall down, get hurt, cry a little, and then bounce back and brush the dirt off. I don't know. It was too much for me."

Every photo was an external shot. Of the outside. Multiple angles of each corner of the house - as if surveyors controlled the camera. Trees from the side, from underneath. Bushes. Flowers up close. The lawn in all its manicured splendor. Sunsets, sunrises, clouds, rain, rainbows. Buds, leaves, turning leaves, branches bare, snow. Parades and street parties. The turnout for a Soapbox Derby. The flags on the 4th, jack-o-lanterns, corn stalks, Christmas lights, and spring cleanup.

"He never had a chance to see the outdoors. Not for many many years. So we took pictures. Lots of pictures. Of everything he couldn't see from his window. He didn't look out his window all that much to tell you the truth. Liked to keep the shade down. Liked it dark. Liked it black. It made sense really."

The feline eyes peered back and mesmerized. Arched back. Stiff tail. Grey coat. Short hair.

"He was a nice cat. We liked him. Very gentle. Had to have him declawed though, or else he would pierce the plastic. That would have been a disaster. Then we had to give him up to someone else. At first it cheered him up, but then it became clear he did not want to see the cat around. He couldn't pet him. Couldn't touch him. Couldn't get near him. Ultimately couldn't love him. That's when he turned away and wanted him gone."

In each frame the father, a tall man, seemed to age mightily. Each frame saw him a little shorter, a little more stooped, a little more jaundiced. The lines of his face marched toward infinity. His eyes retreated ever deeper from the world.

"He was a fine man. I'll never forget his sacrifice. Every morning he would wake up and start the coffee. After 2 or 3 cups that was when he went to work. Mind you not work, as in occupation, but real work. As in keeping his son alive. He would light up maybe 5 to 10 cigarettes at a time. And just inhale and exhale. Inhale and exhale. Always blowing into that bladder that would then disperse the fumes into our son's chamber. We had to do this every day you see. It always had to be refreshed. I don't know. The system could have been better designed, but the doctor's didn't know what to do because they had never seen anything like it before. A reverse lung they called it. They gave us a mechanism whereby we didn't have to do the smoking, but my husband stopped using it soon after. He felt it was his penance to do the work himself instead of a machine. He was going to be the lung for his son. Inhale and exhale. Inhale and exhale. It was sad really. It aged him and killed him not too long after."

"So what ever happened to your son" asked the visitor from the church.

"Well, he got stronger. Gradually. We had to blow fewer cigarette fumes into his bubble. That didn't cut down our smoking though. We always smoked. Smoked from day one. Maybe that was what did it to him in the first place. In the womb and all. I remember those first few moments after I gave birth. The crying and the coughing. He was blue. They said he would gain color in short order, but he remained blue. And coughed and coughed. My husband held him. Held him close to his heart as he drew on his cigar. You know how fathers did that back then. Smoked and handed out cigars at the birth of their children. But it was just odd. Maybe a miracle though. Our baby stopped coughing. Each time his father exhaled he just seemed to get better. And the color returned to his face. Mind you, we still didn't know what his problem was. And it took a few days to finally pinpoint what was going on. I felt terrible though when it was determined. I smoked all during pregnancy. Maybe he took a liking to it while inside. Needed it like I needed it. The smoke. From that point on we knew he was going to be different. I cried for days when we brought him home. The doctors helped set up the chamber they designed for him. First it was a sealed room, and then as he got older we were able to move towards plastic. The environment could be better controlled that way they said. I don't know. It was all very tough on us. I cried and I cried. He was born inside out, my husband used to say. The good stuff goes out and the bad stuff goes in. He was just born inside out."

They talked for a while longer. More photos. The husband no longer appeared in them after awhile. The son grew too. Grew enough to get out of the bubble. One frame showed him sleeping in the backseat of a car.

"Yeah, that helped him out a lot. Our gasoline bill was expensive though. He would leave the engine running all night as he slept. I didn't want him to do it at first. I thought he was going for suicide. But I'd never seen him sleep so well the evening he did that. So that's when I turned the garage into his room and the car into his bed. It was the best I could do. At least it gave him peace and relief. And then soon after he left for the mines in Pennsylvania. He was old enough so there was nothing I could do about it. I couldn't protect him any longer and I think he resented me in some way. But he had to go. Had to see if there was a life he could live. I'd get a letter from him once in a while. Always from some factory town. I sent him money as often as I could. But he moved around a lot and I don't know if he always got my letters. It's sad though. The life he has to endure. He must be desperate. I sometimes wonder what he has to do to stay alive out there."

The visitor helped store the photo album back away where it came from. She checked the thermostat to see if it was set correctly and drew the curtains. She closed the front door behind her after saying her caring good-byes. These visits were always bittersweet. The shut-ins oftentimes appreciated the visits. But sometimes the memories they recalled made them despondent. But they did appreciate the company - however brief it may have been.

She stepped down towards her car and marveled at the refreshing breeze that blew.


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