by Craig Witham
The breathlessness gathered
until he was drowning again. He reached for the mask-translucent rubber, green-attached by a rubber umbilical to an ugly green cylinder which rose from behind the end table like some leafless prehistoric plant. He placed the mask over mouth and nose, snapped the elastic into his hair, grasped the handle at the top of the cylinder. He shut his eyes, braced himself, and concentrated on being full. But for all their ballooning, for all their assaulting of other organs, his lungs’ appetite wouldn’t quell. He screwed the handle all the way counterclockwise. The supposedly tasteless stuff tasted metallic and yellow. Don rested his eyes on the water bottle through which the oxygen flowed; bubbles churned white caps into the water’s surface.
Jimmy’s voice leaked in from the kitchen, “Okay, I’ll go ask him!”
“SHHHH!” His sister shouted the whisper. “Just stay right here a minute, Jimmy!”
Don remembered a time five years ago. He had been only a year into his illness. Jimmy was seven. They were walking together on the beach. The wind and clouds spattered shapes of light onto the sand and undulant, organic patterns onto the water. Don held Jimmy’s hand; they walked together in silence. Don felt a special communion with his son, both of them sprinkled by the same salty blasts in the same wind.
Don said, “Come on, I’ll race you to the pier!”
Jimmy took off full throttle. Don was giving Jimmy the handicap advantage when his chest was jolted with a sudden stroke of breathlessness. He had to sit down and couldn’t call out. He dug into both pants pockets for his inhalator, then remembered it was in his shirt. He fumbled with the button to a flap that locked the pocket.
Jimmy turned to look behind him.
Don raised an arm, but he could only raise it shoulder high and had no strength to wave. Jimmy stopped.
Don tore the button from his pocket, grasped the inhalator, and took four deep breaths. He stood. Jimmy began walking back toward him, his face precociously sober. Jimmy’s chest was rising and falling-too emphatically.
“Dad, what’s that thing you put in your mouth?”
“Nothing… it’s a thing I need to help me breathe.”
“Dad, why can’t you breathe?”
“I can breathe. Come on, let’s go.”
They started back across the beach. By this time, the sun and the wind had dissipated the cloud cover; the sand was growing warm. Jimmy took Don’s hand; they walked the rest of the way in silence across the beach and up a hill to the street where their car was parked.
Inside, Jimmy looked at his hands and said, “Dad… I hope you don’t die.”
Don turned the key in the ignition and flipped on the radio… N0-00 SATISFACTION, I CAN’T GET…
He flipped it back off and turned his face to Jimmy. “I thought I told you kids not to touch my radio! If your mother wants to let you listen to that trash in her car, that’s up to her, but I won’t have it in mine. Do you understand?”
“But I didn’t…”
“Do you understand!”
Don turned back to the steering wheel, braced his arms, shut his eyes, took two deep breaths, then opened his eyes again. I’m sorry to get angry with you, son,” he said before they drove off.
That night, Don had had a dream-he was running with Jimmy, running and laughing. At first, Don’s legs were skinny but hard. Then they became flabby. Then they began to shrink. Jimmy was still giggling; he didn’t see what was happening. He was laughing so windily up into the air while Don turned into a black plastic garbage bag-rising and falling, filling clumsily, then squeezing into a convoluted crumple. Then Jimmy’s laughter fell into wheezing. Each inhalation was a blast of air into the balloon that his chest was becoming. Jimmy’s chest grew and grew. Just before it exploded, Don awoke in a sweat.
Since then he had had the dream five times; once each year three times in color, and the last two times in black-and-white, or green-and-white, like an anemic TV. Each time, he awoke around 3:00 A.M. sometime in the month of September. The last time was about a month ago. The dream’s color remained long afterwards, a moldy aftertaste.
Don heard the kitchen door thump, then squeak, then thump and vibrate. Carol flickered into the room. She was a wisp of a thirteen, year-old who walked constantly on tiptoe. She could glide through his room on some errand or other so quietly that he would hardly notice she was there. Only the misplaced twitter of a breeze would give away her presence.
Don pulled the mask from his face. “Yes, Carol?”
“Is there anything you need?”
“Could you bring me a glass of ice water, please?”
“Okay.” Carol disappeared.
Don’s knees, feet, and hands were cold. The room was gray. A cloud dissolved and warmth flowed in. The light brushed his neck, shoulder, forearm, and poured full strength onto his hand. The heat felt good-healing good. He wanted to sit perfectly still and concentrate on warmth. But the breathing must come. It came, deep and hollow-an inhalation that stretched his ribs into a painful bloat.
Inhale and then exhale. Inhale and exhale. Inhale, exhale. In, out. In, out. In, out.
The warmth flicked off. The room was gray again.
He tried to imagine a lungless being. A being with no breathing, no grasping-grasping breathing-a being that absorbs air through its skin like rays of sunlight. But the only image he could find was a fish; a fish, nervously beating incessant gills.
He heard a faint crackling from the kitchen, ice jingling in a glass, water running. The door thumped, squeaked, and vibrated.
Don’s fingers encircled the glass. It felt like cold dew.
“Thank you, Carol. “
“You’re welcome. Anything else? “
“Could you put on that record for me-the one in front of the rack?”
“Okay.” Carol floated to the corner of the room where a Heathkit hi-fi stereo Don had assembled eight years ago was built into the cabinetry.
“This one? Rachmaninoff Preludes?’“
“Yes … no, how about Franz Danzi. I think it’s in there in the front somewhere.”
“This one, Wind Ensemble, opus fifty-six?”
A wedge of light bounced off the disc as Carol turned it in her fingertips, barely touching the edges, and placed it on the turn table. Then she whispered back out, leaving behind a faint rose colored breeze, scented by the Avon Roses Roseslotion she borrowed from her mother.
At first, Don breathed in time to the music, then relaxed into his own rhythm. The music breathed irregularly-only when it needed breath. Unobtrusively, naturally. Don ‘s consciousness melted into liquid pictures of landscape and light; his nerves understood each phrase that rolled along his limbs, singing in fingers and toes. He closed his eyes. His lungs soon took on the automatic rhythm of sleep and he almost forgot breathing.
The music was solid and visual and, like a painting, seemed to have a timeless existence as a whole; it seemed that all the notes floated simultaneously in one continuous line across his perception. When the final chords woke him, the music slammed into the wall and shattered in the corner like a heap of glass.
Don looked up. Jimmy was standing in the doorway-a scarecrow with sticklike limbs poking through oversized shirt sleeves and short pants. His hair was an unruly bunch of hay arching out from the crown in every direction. Don shut his eyes. The record clicked off and the breathing resumed, dark and hollow. He paced it to the rhythm of his heart-four beats to inhale, three to exhale. He placed his elbow firmly on the arm of the couch and began raising and lowering his forearm in perfect sync with his breathing; he rose it until the weight of his limp wrist threw his hand backwards, then lowered it again until his hand fell forward, over and over again.
Don’s eyes jerked open onto Jimmy’s face, which floated only a few feet from his own. “Yes?” his throat barked out, more sternly than he had intended.
“I … Carol said you didn’t know how to play chess, and I said she was lying.”
Jimmy’s voice startled Don’s breathing into syncopation with his heart. His lungs heaved deeper with each breath. His diaphragm pushed into his intestines. He felt caught in a perpetual inhalation destined to float him up the room on a bed of spongy lung material and compress his head into a corner of breathing.
“Dad, are you okay? …Daddy?”
Don waved toward the oxygen mask. He saw Jimmy yanking the mask from the top of the cylinder, saw the water jar come loose and crash to the floor. Jimmy picked up the plastic lid of the jar through which one tube descended from the tank and another ascended into the mask. Don’s breathing had degenerated into nothing but gasping and coughing. His consciousness was dominated by the image of a sick volcano trying to cough up lava.
The wheezing lulled for a moment and he opened his eyes. He saw Jimmy cramming the end of a hose into the mask, but the meaning of what he saw wasn’t clear.
Don’s diaphragm slammed into his chest cavity, throwing his whole torso forward, creating a vacuum in his lungs from which he was too weak to escape. He stopped breathing. The world was a colorless void. One eye flickered open and photographed the scene: Jimmy’s face was a silhouette from which a tuft of hair was waving about like a flag; one fist was raised high.
Don felt Jimmy’s fist slam into his diaphragm. He felt his chest expand; he sprang upright, fully conscious, like a man jolted out of sleep by a loud noise. The dry gas rubbed his windpipe.
The breathing slowed. Don settled back into the couch and shut his eyes. For several minutes he leaned into the cushions and knew only the rising and falling of his chest. When he peered into the world again, he saw Jimmy staring at him-a self-conscious mute. Don raised his eyes and met Jimmy’s stark naked gaze; their eyes locked tight. Don saw not lashes, pupils, and lids, but a dark infinite expanse-an ocean. His body began to lean forward.
A twitch in Jimmy’s forehead severed the connection. Jimmy looked away and started clicking his fingernails together.
Don removed the mask and cleared his throat. “Jimmy, how often have I told you to stop clicking your fingernails like that.”
“Sorry, Dad. You can, can’t you?”
Jimmy shifted his weight from one leg to the other. His knee buckled.
“Well, I could teach you.” Jimmy started clicking his fingernails again. He looked away, then at his hands; he stopped clicking his nails.
“I mean, I could show you how the men move.”
Don looked down between his knees at a brown spotted square of linoleum into the border of which one of Jimmy’s sneakers had intruded, then looked up into Jimmy’s face. Jimmy’s fingernails were clicking on both hands now; his left knee was shaking.
Don spoke steadily, softly. “No, not today. Maybe another time.”
Craig Witham is a senior majoring in English from Provo, Utah. “Wind Ensemble” won a third place award in the 1983-84 Ann Doty fiction contest.