Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Graveyard Cough

I’m 12. It’s right after dinner on a school night in early December 1966.  I’m walking through the living room, I clear my throat a bit, and hear thunder.

“Get another sweatshirt!”
Happy Pryors
“Oh, crap,” I thought, and 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 got the slightest cold, a little tickle in my throat, it turned into a graveyard cough. In his mind’s eye, it would start in my feet, travel through every chamber in my pulmonary system, and build in pressure and size until it burst out of my mouth like the death rattle of a tuberculosis victim who was simultaneously taking a series of bullets to his lungs. If Dad heard my tiny cough two rooms away he’d ambush me and sandwich me with two T-shirts, two of his old sweatshirts and a giant jar of Vick’s VapoRub. 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.

Thomas E. Pryor on left
My Dad’s dad, Thomas E. Pryor, died at age 40. He had advanced tuberculosis. They called it Pott’s Disease. Whenever I coughed my Dad probably saw pictures of the sanatorium where my grandfather spent seven of his last ten years, a hundred 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 T-shirt and a light sweatshirt, the optimal clothing for touch football. I put my extra sweatshirt, my peacoat, and my scarf behind the radiator near the cellar door and left the vestibule. Jumping off my stoop, I looked up at the snowflakes dancing across the streetlights and followed their wavy paths down until they dusted the street bed. Then I wandered over to First Avenue to meet my friends.

After two hours and three games, it was time to go home -- and it was time to pee. Running into the hallway and up the stairs, determined to get to the toilet fast, I forgot the outerwear I had hidden in the vestibule. I ran into the bathroom, passed my mother doing the dishes, and relieved myself,moaning happily while listening to the sizzling steam pipe whistle. Finished, clueless, I stepped out of the bathroom into the kitchen at the same time my Dad came in from the living room. He looked me over.
“Did you just get in?”

With my mouth wide open, I once again entered the land of unanswerable questions. I said nothing, 
“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 any deeper attention to The World at War on TV you could go right into the sea battle.”

Dad was ready to say something, 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.” 

"I will kill you, you S.O.B."
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?”

“Don’t have a conniption. 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.

Jerry Mahoney's tomb on top of step ladder

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