As I sit at the bus stop, the man once again hovers over his inhaler, as if he is coveting a mystic cure, an important solution. He shakes it with great fervor and snaps his wrists to work the medicine into the sleek, bullet-shaped chamber. He places the bright orange mouthpiece between his lips and sucks until his cheeks are sunk. A pale face, deep circles—eyes roll back as he savors the medicine gust. He removes the mouthpiece and tosses the empty chamber into the dented trash can next to him. Now he is digging into a deep pocket, revealing a shiny new chamber to click into place, breathing deeply, rhythmically—to prepare himself for the next inhale.
He wears no shoes. His toes are caked with the city's filth, and the skin on his heels is torn and flaked. His greasy hair is wet with sweat; his clothes—wrinkled, disheveled. His face is full and unshaven, like a friendly moon face with mischievous smudges of mud and food across the smile. The chin is doubled. The eyebrows—bushy and awry. He smiles at the passing traffic and silently laughs to himself, shaking his head from side to side. There is a bookstore window behind him featuring the book of the week: Moral Choices.
I haven't seen him lately. He usually will find a paper in the trash to read. Some days, he scribbles intently onto napkins and scraps of paper. The eyebrows wave up and down in intrigue. It is these days he must take out the inhaler six or seven times. While I read the latest movie billboard in the confines of the bus stop huddle, I then hear the familiar rattling of his compact, sanctified metal cartridge. His apple-cake eyes roll up to the heavens.
The movie poster is about a runaway girl who goes to Hollywood to become a celebrity make-up artist, then she falls madly in love with a guy who works in an aspirin factory. The man is coughing, wheezing in a series of orchestrated suffocations. I take a deep breath as our bus approaches the curb. He never gets on.
From his winded throne at the bus stop, he keeps nodding wildly at the passing people whose heels pump the sidewalk like seesaws. His head shakes from side to side once again and he cracks a smirk in my direction on the bus. I slink down into my seat and realize I have been staring too long. Most times at the stop I nod back with a polite, patronizing wink and wonder if he can tell the difference. The business suits pass in a blur, throwing coins and piteous glances out like piņata candy. He pounds his chest like Tarzan and laughs at his sympathetic street audience. Sometimes I read the bookstore window across the street while he is performing his routine. Yesterday a red piece of construction paper in the corner said: HELP WANTED.
My father shuffles into our living room sometimes in great despair. I know this because of his lack of passion, and his highball in one hand. The lights all go out, and he lies on the white island of couch in the darkness. Sometimes Stravinsky accompanies him, but that night, Van Morrison's "St. Dominic's Preview" wove freely through the air. The ice cubes in his glass, inevitably linked like a pathetic couple in a gum commercial, clinked with every small stir of his wrist, every movement of every bone and muscle in his hand. The snips of Van Morrison's crooning sliced through the room.
"You got everything you ever wanted."
I stood in the doorway, just having got away from my thoughts of the man, having trudged home from the stop after a long day of filling prescriptions. His silhouette lips danced on the edge of the thickly cut, gold-decorated glass. The record sputtered, skipped, but he didn't move. He always had secrets he exchanged with the alcohol.
Carefully, I walked across the brown shag carpet. The music was intermingled with jangled chords of his humming and Van is singing, "Everyone feels so determined not to feel anyone else's pain
" and then my father stopped humming.
His head slowly rose. He semi-sung the lyrics through a strained voice, "And the smell of sweet perfume comes drifting through
I recognized the song. It wasn't "St. Dominic's Preview."
"Dad? That's 'Madame George,' I think
" I told him, teetering in the doorway.
"Say goodbye to Madame George
This was the night that mom left him. Each muscle was stiff, weighted with a familiar wheezing gasp. The man at the bus stop, encased in my ribcage for that moment, held my lungs in a tight fist until his knuckles grew raw—grabbed for air through my body with his fingers.
My father got up from the couch that night after scratching the needle across the record as if it were completely natural to do and turned on the tube in the bedroom. "The Lost Weekend" with Ray Milland was on. Stravinsky found a place in his evening's choice of music, however. I found the album cover next to his snoring figure on the billowing orange comforter.
The next day the man was coughing up phlegm at the bus stop and then spitting it out onto the sidewalk. He was still laughing to himself. The green mucous next to his toes delighted him. I acknowledged him once again with a smile, but this time, bravely decided to ask him about his breathing problem myself.
"Well, you see," he began, gurgling with chest congestion. "I've always loved Stravinsky."
"Stravinsky?" I asked, still cautious.
He began to smile again. "Little girl, his music took my breath away
" he laughed himself into choking hacks.
"Oh," was all I could muster, almost embarrassed. The others at the stop slightly chuckled, but this time, at me. The bus rounded the corner and a passing business man suddenly threw a coin in my lap. The book of the week was Long-term Illness: How To Cope.
My father had a strong grip on the glass. The television flickered. I pried his weakening hands off and set it on the nightstand next to him. He stirred slightly when I brushed his callused fingers. I walked to the television to switch it off. The voice crumpled with a bleak image as the words in my mind became clear as the set glowed. It was quiet as I picked up the scratched remains of a Van Morrison record and a torn Stravinsky album cover.
"Stravinsky went into hiding for nine years," my father told me once, outside on the lawn in the summer. We were looking at the trees and talking.
"You know, he didn't write or read a note for years."
"Why?" I picked apart a dandelion and dug my toes into the plush grass.
"He didn't want to hear any music
didn't want to do it anymore
I guess he thought he couldn't do anything else."
I began to cough remembering, for the first time, what it felt like to breathe.
Lina ramona Vitkauskas' short fiction has appeared online in the Mississippi Review and ShortStory.org. She has received an Honorable Mention in STORY magazine's Carson McCullers Prize for the Short Story, quarter-finalist recognition in New Century Writer's 1999 Short Story Awards, and first prize in fiction in the 1996 DES Journal. Her poetry has been published in The Outlet, The Poet, milk, and Mudlark. Upcoming publications for fiction include the Wisconsin Review and poetry online in Big Bridge, JACK, and In Posse. A collection of her poems will also be included in the anthology Survivor Poetry. She is a Chicago native, Lithuanian-bred, and now playing in theatres near you.