Friday, December 3, 2010

Graveyard Cough

I’m 12. It’s right after dinner on a school night in early December 1966. Setting is the living room in my family’s small apartment (675 sq feet) on East 83rd Street in Yorkville.

“Get another sweat shirt!”

“Oh, crap.”

I thought, I grabbed more clothes and presented myself for my father’s review.

He counted my garments then said, “OK be back by nine.”

Dad and I were at war. All my life, if I get the slightest cold, a little tickle in my throat, it turns into a graveyard cough.It starts in my feet, travels through every chamber in my pulmonary system building pressure and size until it comes out of my mouth like a Tuberculosis victim’s death rattle while taking a series of bullets to his lungs. If Dad heard my cough tickle two rooms away he’d ambush me and sandwich me with two T-shirts, two of his old sweat shirts and a giant jar of Vick’s Vapor Rub. He put three fingers in the jar, take out enough yuck to cure a choir of sore throats, and rub it into my chest and neck like I owed him a lot of money.

Dads dad, my grandfather, Thomas E. Pryor, died from advanced TB at 40 years old. They called it Pott’s Disease. Dad had an elephant’s memory and when I coughed he probably saw pictures of the sanatorium where my grandfather spent 7 of his last 10 years, 125 miles upstate.

On the way down the stairs I started undressing. By the time I got to the first floor I was down to a tee shirt and a light sweat shirt, I put my extra sweat shirt, my pea coat, and my scarf behind the radiator near the cellar door and left the vestibule with the optimal clothing for playing touch football. Jumping off my stoop, I saw snow flakes dancing across the street lights, dusting the street bed. After two hours and three games up the block near First Avenue, it was time to get home, and it was time to pee. Running up my stoop into the hallway, up the stairs I forgot my outerwear determined to get the bathroom before I peed myself. I ran into the bathroom passed my mother doing the dishes and relieved myself in a religious ritual. Finished, clueless, I stepped out of the bathroom into the kitchen at the same time my Dad stepped into the kitchen from the living room. He looked me over.

“Did you just get in?”

My mouth wide open, I said nothing, once again entering the land of unanswerable questions.

“I said. Did you just…” Mom cut Dad off.

“Are you friggin nuts? He’s been home ten minutes in his room, if you paid deeper attention to the World at War on TV you could go right back into the sea battle.”

Dad was ready to say something to me again, but shrugged and went back into the living room. The commercial was over and it was time for him to return to the North Atlantic in 1942.

Mom said loud enough for Dad to hear, “Tommy, here’s a dollar go get two milk.” She pushed me out the door with the buck before Dad came back in the room. Even with the door closed, from the hall stairs I heard him say to Mom, “We have three quarts, what the hell is wrong with you?”

“You all drink milk like this is a farm, it will be gone tomorrow, I’m not your Gunga Din, Tommy’s on an exercise kick, I’m helping him out.”

I ran down the stairs with a shit ass grin, in love with Mom, all over again.

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