Smoke, One Afternoon

Photo by theilr (copied from Flickr)
Photo by theilr (copied from Flickr)

In the daytime, with the door closed and the curtains drawn, the bedroom assumes a green hue which reminds me of a marble I once owned, a prized possession and one that I rarely gambled on in competitive play. Its surface was like that of the moon, cratered and disembowelled. Where it came from I don’t know. Certainly, it wasn’t bought but likely handed down, found or given and where it is now I have no idea, but sitting on the floor with Himself’s respiratory system rasping away, back against the bed and feet up against the wall, I can still feel its surface – rub finger and thumb against an imagined orb – its darkened shell.

It’s the same shade known as Racing Car Green or Pantone 18-5332; the same colour as a certain kind of gravel used to cover graves or more ornate gardens. The light, what light there is, comes through the thin curtains, but where the filter is that produces this greening of the room is also an unknown thing. Perhaps it’s an optical illusion, or a combination of refraction and reflection beyond the curtains and on the other side of the glass. Himself is colourblind for greens and browns so he wouldn’t notice, not even if he wasn’t asleep and in bed in the middle of the day.

Trick of the light I tell him, although of course he doesn’t hear but only rasps in reply. The sound of his breathing comes and goes and mostly I don’t notice, it having assumed the quality of a white noise that becomes obtrusive only when absent. Occasionally his lungs, windpipes, oesophagus – whichever – are temporarily cleared so that he breathes quietly and with ease for a few moments, and in these moments I suspend my own in-and-exhalations, waiting bated for the rasping to resume.

Which it does.

I take out a pouch of tobacco packed with papers and matches. I roll quietly and efficiently and light the tip, which flares and diminishes then burns crisply toward my fingers. The match, held up to the light through the curtains, forms a corona. The green is temporarily banished and after the flame is extinguished, the dark of the room sinks into itself. He won’t even smell the smoke, breakdown of olfaction being one of the symptoms. It’s possible that he might wake and see the wisps of smoke rising from the floor, but the regular rasping continues and even if he did come round, his visual acuity is far from its peak, macular degeneration being another symptom: in short, he doesn’t know I smoke and never will.

The curtains hang just short of the radiator, which is surrounded by a textured wallpaper that’s been around for more years than I have. Behind the radiator is bare and uncovered plaster, Himself not being one who sees – or ever saw – the point in taking care of the parts that can’t be seen.

The paper burns down to my fingers and I tamp it out on the floor. I leave the room and run a bath. His house is old, there’s no window in the bathroom so I have to turn on the light. The ceiling and upper portions of the walls are caked in a black-and-green mould that the council cleans twice a year. The bathroom smells of damp but again, he wouldn’t know.

I sink into the water, steam swirling in the air. There’s something depressing about bathing during the day and I try to avoid it. But now I sit, unable to stretch out in his under-sized tub, cupping my hands and splashing water over my legs ineffectually, doing nothing other than sitting in silence and waiting for the water to lose heat.

The contents of the bathroom are sparse: a toothbrush and paste in a beaker on the sink; a razor and foam on the shelf. Behind the taps on the sink there is a flannel caked in scum, a cracked and shrunken bar of soap and an empty bottle of shampoo. All these items are bland browns and yellows which emphasise the enervating environment. Again, again: nothing he would notice.

The lack of ventilation retains the heat, allowing it to stay. When I finally get out, my hands are wrinkled to the point of pain and my throat is wet from inhaling the mist, which – I realise far too late – is also contaminated with the mould that adorns the ceiling and the wall and then his many ailments and complaints make more sense.

It’s been over four hours since he lay down, exhausted before the morning was up. Waking him physically is not something I like to do; too forced, too rough. Instead, I draw back the curtains, hoping the light will rouse him. The rasp against the rail is harsh and it’s then that I notice his own rasp is absent, his eyes still shut. Basic checks – wrist, neck, hand-on-heart – confirm the most likely cause of silence and for an unspecified period I can only stand over him: still.

The phone rings: an old Dialatone with no answering service or call-display. The ringer is an out-of-place, in-between sort of sound that came after the classic bell but before the more subtle digital effects. It gasps for breath, uncertain of itself and it is turned up loud – vasculitis of the cochlea being one other symptom – so much that it hurts to hear it, even upstairs and in his room with the door closed, and I kneel down, lower my head and cover my ears until it stops.

This is a reaction to a situation. This (I think) is grief.

There are things to be done then, but I don’t do them yet, don’t know that there’s a hurry any more. Urgency ceases when life is extinct, so instead I draw the curtains because it feels like the right thing to do. The green has gone and the room is only dark, shadows obscuring detail and depth. I sit on the floor again and light another, the tip flaring up and down, signalling nothing. The moisture in my throat is gone, displaced by compound particulates and now it’s my breathing that’s dry, my in-and-exhalations that rasp inside the silence.

Later, downstairs and in the kitchen, the taps rattle as I draw a glass of water. When I’m done I flush it out, stacking it on the draining board, upturned and alone. The phone rings again and this time I answer it, being too close to block out the noise out, even with the door shut, eyes closed, hands over ears.

When I was younger and still lived at home – but after a certain age – on answering the phone I’d frequently be mistaken for Himself. There are (there were) some similarities in our voice, tone and cadence, but distinguishing between such suchness over the telephone is hard and anyway, I know that people rarely listen to anything other than that which they expect to hear. When I answered on this occasion the caller spoke straight away, without pause or introduction, about this, that and the other, under the assumption that it was He and Himself without question and I lit a cigarette: allowed the assumption to stand.

About J.L. Bogenschneider

JL Bogenschneider is a writer of short fiction, with work featured most recently in Passages North, Ambit, Bare Fiction and Hobart.

JL Bogenschneider is a writer of short fiction, with work featured most recently in Passages North, Ambit, Bare Fiction and Hobart.

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