Thump, pause, thump, pause.
The flame of the lighter licks at the edge of the cigarette. A slight puff and a cherry glows. I breathe in that first lungful of Marlboro Ultra Lights and lean back in the white rocking chair on the front porch of my house. It is my new morning routine. When I moved in with my soon-to-be wife, the cat was allowed entry, the smoking was not. The coffee gets cold faster, as I sip and puff my way through one cup and two cigarettes. In ten minutes, I’ll be getting ready for work.
Vines have reached across the space in the middle of the night to wrap a tiny tendril around a rung in the rocking chair. I unwrap it and then rewrap it around the lattice. Our porch is in stark contrast to the neighboring twin home, and all of the neighbors for that matter.
There is some gardening along the street. A pot of flowers here and a few plants there. It is nothing like what my Tracy has done.
She moved away from Hawaii 21 years ago. Looking around at the lush, front porch you would think she moved away six months ago and dreaded it every day. She had been covered in dirt, manure, and wood chips for a week when winter finally made its last gasp. Bulbs were planted, new lattices installed, and then there was car load after car load of plants.
Thump, pause, thump, thumpity-thump, pause, pause, thumpity-thump, thump.
I push at the tightening in my chest and clear my throat. Roll my shoulders and then square them with my back rigid.
She wants me to quit smoking as well. Wants me to live forever, she says. But I’ve been smoking now for 25 years and it’s hard. In the fall, I promise her, when it gets too cold to smoke outside anymore. Now that I met her, I really do want to quit. At 37, I have found peace.
I’ll sit out here and smoke after work, watching her squat in her garden, pulling up weeds and leaves, and tucking things back into place. I can’t squat like that. She says it is hereditary, that her grandmother squatted the same way in her garden in the Philippines, her butt resting on her heels. Every time I try to squat like that, I fall over.
Thumpity-thump, thumpity-thump, thumpity-thump, pause, pause, pause. Pain.
It starts in the chest, a white hot poker bursting out of me. I can feel it as it punctures the chest muscles and then rips through the breast bone. The fire arcs through me. Not in waves as I once would have thought, but as thick, jagged bolts radiating from my chest at irregular intervals. My right hand turns into a claw and the half smoked cigarette falls to the ground. Can’t bring my left hand up to rub. Inch forward, bringing my chest to my hand. I topple to the ground.
I try to roar out a cry. Anything. But a squeak is all that escapes. More jagged bolts have paralyzed my legs. Shake. Shake. Roll. Try to get to the door. Knock. Bounce my head off the door. Get someone’s attention.
I try to breathe.
In the army, for chemical and biological warfare training, we were all equipped with gas masks. The drill sergeants were equipped with canisters of CS gas. Tear gas. If you were unlucky enough to have a canister dropped at your feet, as I had been, the mask was useless. You draw in that all-important last breath so that you can violently expel the breath and then seal the gas mask with a quick intake, but the CS gas goes in instead of air. You breathe deep and… nothing. You can feel your lungs work, feel them expand, feel your diaphragm expand and it feels like not one molecule of oxygen gets in.
I try to breathe again. Rock. Struggle. Claw at the door.
Drool running down my cheek onto the cold concrete. An outstretched claw is hit by a swinging storm door.
From far, far away. Muffled through pounds of cotton. “Oh my…CALL 911!”
That’s my girl. That’s my Tracy. My soon to be wife. Hopefully not my soon to be widow. Have I switched the life insurance into her name yet? She’s a sharp one. A strong one. A momentary pause and then jump into action.
“Are you calling 911?” Maybe to her daughter. Maybe to a neighbor. From across a lush field. Marigolds and daisies play with ferns and creeping things.
Something drips onto my face. She was so very far away, but now she is here. Crying. That’s my girl. My damn claw can’t wrap her tiny hand in my own. Can’t reassure her.
“I’ll be alright,” I whisper, I think. My lips do not even move.
Thhhhhhuuuuuummmmmpppppp. That’s the iron bands they talk about. Like a vise. Tightening across my chest. Not like a bear hug from an overjoyed friend. This one is mean. Cruel. Squeezing my heart. Flattening it.
Do your fucking job.
Isn’t my life supposed to be passing in front of my eyes? The only thing passing in front of my eyes is a tiny black ant. It crawls along the boundary between the grayish, old cement, pocked with tiny black stones, and the new, off-white cement. It comes to my drool and stops for a moment, to test and sense with miniscule antennae, and then crawls into the off-white and out of my sight.
Behind my eyes is another story.
Like so many other times in my life, from the first time that my father brought his melon sized fist crashing into my 12-year-old face to the time that I came home, at 16, to find my mother in the bathtub, the warm water filled with lazy scarlet spirals and tendrils. Pain. Such awful pain. The chipped jaw bone and broken nose. The mind lurching through ifs and maybes and things I should have done. The pain blossomed and mushroomed, from a tiny point expanding and enveloping. Like all of the other times. And like all of the other times, to be met. By anger.
A roaring wind. Born of the high winds, the powerful winds. Pain is stopped, cut through, and contained.
How dare You, You fickle, vengeful Bastard. No, I am not a good Catholic. I suck at being a Catholic. I spurn Your glorious houses gilded in gold and reeking of guilt. I defy Your dogmas and dooms. But I’ve lived a good life. I’ve lived a life of charity and forgiveness. And now, after 37 years, I’ve found peace. Love. Health. And You want to take it away from me? Fuck You.
Thump, pause, pause, pause, pause, thump…
Someone is pounding on my chest. My eyes closed somewhen and I can’t see who. Can’t open my eyes. Want to. Need to. Need to see her again. One more time.
Breath tickles at my lungs, but not my own. Berry tasting lips cover my own, and breathe into me. But the straps are too tight. It is her. My wonderful girl. My beautiful lady. That berry taste infiltrates everything that I do. The sips of her soda I steal. The bites of her food she passes to me in restaurants. That berry taste is like a shadow that follows me throughout the day, after I kiss her good bye in the morning. My wonderful lady has a thing for berry lip gloss.
She breathes again. Her whole lungful, though, is almost nothing. Almost nothing, though, is enough. Almost nothing is all that I ever had before I met her. Almost nothing will be enough.
Thump, pause, pause, pause, pause, thump…thump…
Pounding again. Distant. An echo of an echo. Barely felt. Like the last time the old man beat me.
Weren’t expecting that, were you fucker? Five years of beatings taught me something. Like in the movie: sometimes, you just have to take a beating. The fists falling on me. Then the kicks when I fell to the ground and rolled into a ball. The nose shattering again. The fingers splintering. The ribs cracking. All just an echo of an echo. A distant pounding of some other seventeen-year-old. Seen from afar. Heard from afar. Felt from afar.
Tired you out, didn’t it? Then, you turned your back. Went to the liquor cabinet to pour another single malt. You didn’t expect me to stand back up and shrug off the pain. Didn’t expect that first punch to the back of your head. Or the next one to your kidney. Didn’t expect me to be able to duck your wild, back-handed swing. The knee to your balls really surprised you too, didn’t it?
I should have just kept kicking you like you had done me. But your precious golf clubs were right there, the ones I had knocked over that “justified” this beating.
In the movies, whenever someone beats someone with a golf club, they always grab the wrong club. They reach for the driver: the long stick with the great, big head. Wrong one. It is usually made of a light, titanium alloy with a wispy graphite shaft. The club that they should be reaching for, as I did, is the 2-iron.
Now, you can do some major damage with a good 2-iron. Short, squat and solid.
But, if you are using it on a district attorney, even if it is your father that has beaten you for the last five years, that 2-iron makes for a big difference is the charges brought against you. Without the golf club, you get simple assault, a misdemeanor, which usually involves a year or so in county lock-up. The golf club, though, bounces the charge up to aggravated assaulted, a felony, with a few years in state prison.
Aye: sometimes you just have to take a beating.
Thump, pause, pause, pause, pause, pause…
Where’s the damn ambulance? Have it stuck in traffic, You Bastard? Seven minutes it took when my baby had a seizure. Seven of your god-damned minutes. Seven of the most angriest minutes of my life. Tracy’s daughter. But mine as well for all intents and purposes. Shaking on the ground with her jaw locked open. Tracy cradling her head. Me pacing. Stomping. I could have run her around the corner to the fire house in half that time.
Anger exploding in my head.
Is that what this is? Some idea of a cosmic joke? Again? As always, at my expense? One long war, all my life. One battle after another. I fought and gasped my way through 30 fucking years. Home, prison, college, career. Until now I have this. Not a respite from the war, but an end to it.
You damned Mother-Fucker! You are going to take me away from the peace that I earned? Take away my Tracy and my baby? Fuck You! Damn You! And screw You!
Another wisp of berry air tickles at the steel straps squeezing my chest. Moisture sizzles its way through the pain and rolls down my cheek. Cracking my eyes open. Like bench pressing a couple Toyotas. But I can finally see her.
Eyes swollen. Snot connects dots between her nose and mouth and chin. Long, black hair looking like some mad bird made its nest. And she is so very, very beautiful. My sunshine, I call her. And she is. I bask in her warmth every day, every night.
She’s fought her own battles. Unwed mother. Three jobs to put herself through school. Didn’t really believe that I wasn’t going to stay with her for almost the first year of our relationship. Anything on my computer she could look at and read. Stop by at work anytime that she wanted. And she finally believed me. And I finally believed me.
Her lips come down to mine, and she breathes.
The anger is subsiding, diminishing. The straps tighten. The heart just won’t go.
I try to touch her face, but my arm won’t work. No reserves left. Almost nothing might not be enough this time.
The berry smell mingles with something else, something green. Can’t really make it out, distinguish the one scent from all of the others. Tracy could tell me. Hibiscus or rose, ivy or fern, cherry tree or magnolias. It might even be from the corn stalking reaching up next to the tree. A corn stalk. The damndest thing. Must have been from the bird feeder hanging in the tree. Tracy left it there instead of pulling it up with the weeds. Watered it along with all of the other plants.
Tracy wasn’t too good about the bird feeder, so I made it my job. She could squat in the garden for hours, but the bird feeder would go empty and remain that way.
I hated those damn birds. All that squawking and whistling in the morning. Beating each other with their wings for the best perches on the feeder. Pecking at each other for the choice tidbits. Always told her I hated the birds. They annoyed me while I sipped my coffee and smoked my cigarettes.
She only smiled at me the first time I filled the feeder. A ghost of a smile after my first trip to the pet store for more seed. She ignored me when I brought home a second feeder. She would just squat in her garden underneath them both, pulling out weeds and directing the plants to play nice with each other.
Thump, pause, gasp…
Okay, Old Man. You win. Not you—the other fucker.
Pain. Cresting. Waiting for the ebb.
And there’s my baby. Looks too much like her mother. She’s trying to gurgle something through tears. Shhhh, Honey. Shhhhh. It’ll be okay. It’ll be okay. Just watch out for guys. They’ll say anything to get what they want. And don’t let anybody ever lay a hand on you.
Tracy shaking her head. Putting a long, slim finger to my lips. Oh, to kiss it one more time, but there is nothing else. Almost nothing is slowly becoming nothing.
And then another wisp of berry breath. Not going to be enough, Sweetie. So sorry I failed you. I tried. I tried. Pressing on my chest. Counting. One, two, three. One, two, three. Then another wisp of breath. Trying to coax that damn heart of mine into a couple more beats.
Relaxing into the pain. Allowing the steels bands to diffuse throughout my body. Such a lush garden. Purples and pinks intermingle with greens. Blues and whites and yellows. Hanging things. Potted things. Shrubs, bushes and vines.
Most of them will die in the winter. I think that Tracy looks forward to it almost as much as the spring. This riot of colors and panoply of scents will fade to browns and an earthy smell. With the help of a few contractor bags, her garden will make way to first Halloween and then Christmas decorations.
After she is sure that winter has lost its grip, the trips to the nurseries will begin again. Bags and bags of manure and soil. And she’ll be back squatting in her garden, kneading the earth, and making holes for her plants.
And a tear. My own. I never cried during the beatings at home—the anger would not allow it. I did not cry when my mother died, for the same reason. Never cried during the beatings in jail. Never cried when they raped me, when they held down the son of the district attorney and did to me what they wanted to do to him. Haven’t cried in years and years. But I’ll do it now, Honey, for you.
No prayers—I won’t be a hypocrite. But if I could just gasp, “I love you,” I would.
I always thought my last words would be a final “fuck you” to the world. But all I want to be able to say is, “I love you.”
And her face fills my sight. Skin so dark she could almost be confused with an African-American. Soft lines of her high cheek bones and stubby nose. Wish it wasn’t so filled with snot, but I’ll take whatever I can get.
Her daughter close by. Taking turns pressing at my chest. No anger in her face, that is so much like her mother’s. I should learn something from that. No anger, though I know they love me.
And growing things behind them and around them. Their faces framed by interwoven vines and ferns.
Then the blooms are pierced by swirling lights.
Too late, guys. Too late. Tracy is moved, shoved aside, and I can’t even grasp at her. Cold things are placed on my chest. Oh shit, here it comes.
Thump, pause, pause, pause, pause…
Thump, pause, pause, pause, thump…
Iron bands crumble
Thump, pause, thump, pause…
A roaring sound. Like an echo coming back at you amplified.
Guess I ain’t going anywhere for a while. Who will feed the birds?