Breathing

Richard Schmitt Click to read more...

3Richard Schmitt’s work has been anthologized in Best American Essays and New Stories of the South: The Year’s Best.  His work has also appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Blackbird, Arts & Letters and The North American Review.  His novel The Aerialist was published by Harcourt in 2001.

The ambulance came at midnight in the middle of the week, alarm clock on our nightstand glowing in the dark, flickering lights streaming up through our bedroom windows and circling on the ceiling over our bed. My wife, Mary, propped up on one elbow, parted the Venetian blind slats with her fingers and peered out. There was no siren so I guessed it was the electric company. All winter we’d had power outages along the waterfront. “What now?” I said. There was always something downtown.

After spending a last Christmas in our old house in North Charleston where our kids had grown up—two in college now, one married up north—Mary and I, alone again after thirty years, didn’t need such a big place and we purchased this new townhouse on the water. A good investment our accountant said. For three months we’ve lived with the wind thrashing the shutters battened over triple-paned safety glass. These places were built to resist, to stand up to, another Hurricane Hugo. I don’t know that they would but that’s what the city insisted, the contractor proclaimed, the realtor stressed. “You’ll be safe here,” the realtor said. “This neighborhood will not be leveled again.”

But we didn’t feel safe. Mary was uncomfortable those first few months, wearing sweaters inside the house and hugging herself. “I prefer an oil burner,” she said. These places had electric heat that tinged, took a long time to get hot, and gave us sinus trouble. We regularly woke at night to unfamiliar noises, the water crashing, the wind pounding the building. We’d been in our old house thirty years and had settled and sagged along with its familiar creaks and groans. By April it was warm downtown and we’d pushed back the shutters on the townhouse at night and opened the windows.

Outside, the ambulance engine idled at a loud, high rpm. I rose and went into the bathroom. Mary was sleepy, propped up on her elbow, peering out, squinting and breathing hard.

Over the toilet was a bulls-eye window embedded in the wall. Standing there peeing, I saw the ambulance backed onto the cement driveway of the place next door. EMS responders in reflective jackets ran into the house pushing a wheeled stretcher. The red and white lights atop the vehicle blinked and bounced light all over the neighborhood. There are no yards down here, the land is too valuable. Short driveways and low hedges separate the townhouses along the water. I went back to bed. “Ambulance,” I said.

Mary got up to use the bathroom and didn’t come back. I was tired and needed sleep. The clock showed 12:08. We both had to work in the morning. There was nothing to see. I figured the guy next door had a heart attack. He was about my age, but overweight, a fat guy, and always with a cigarette. Mary said his last name was Henderson. We didn’t know his first name. He was friendly enough whenever I saw him across the hedge. We bragged about our vehicles, our investments, we compared notes on the construction of these townhouses. “Insurance bought ours,” he told me. Before Hugo they had a nice little house down here. A family home, garage, a bit of lawn. In 1989 Hugo forced evacuation. “We came back to nothing,” he said. “Looked like an atomic bomb went off down here.” We were in North Charleston then I told him. He was short and barrel-chested, the right shape for a heart attack, and always puffing the cigarette when we talked over the hedge. His wife smoked too, and they had a son at home. A teenager. Maybe the kid overdosed on drugs. Nah, he’s not the type. It was a heart attack. What else could it be? In any case I wasn’t going over there. I didn’t know them that well. But Mary’s absence made me anxious, I couldn’t fall back to sleep.

Mary worked full time managing an auction house on King Street. They bought out estates and held private sales. High-class stuff. Sealed bids. Mary is in charge of acquisitions. I’ve tried to get her to stop, she doesn’t need the job. And it’s stressful having to assess the substance of things, guessing what will hold value, what will last, and what will diminish. The longevity of things is uncertain she told me, difficult to predict.

I own a building restoration company, which after thirty years steadfastly refuses to run itself. We both work hard, and there is little reason for it. We don’t need the money. We paid the kid’s college bills out of pocket; we drive new cars, dine out, and drink pricy wine. Our old house in North Charleston brought ten times what we paid for it thirty years ago, and while the new townhouse was costly, it comes with little monthly overhead. There is no lawn to cut, no gutters to paint, no shingles to replace. Living downtown is easy and if it wasn’t for our work we’d be free and clear with our time.

I got up and went downstairs. “Mary?” She wasn’t in the house. I looked out the window at Henderson’s place all lit up. People in the street. The house on the other side of ours is full of tall Russian girls. A fact the realtor had tried to conceal. She didn’t want us to know the College of Charleston owned the place to provide housing for scholarship basketball players. The girls use the driveway to pound out intricate basketball patterns. They have one of those portable hoops with a weighted base. Anytime of the day or night they’re likely to be out there running fast and furious routines with a basketball pounding the pavement.

I went through the kitchen and down the stairs to the carport. We live above our cars here in case of flooding. During Hugo this whole area was under seven feet of water. Mary stood in her bathrobe at the end of our driveway, her arms folded across her chest. I walked along the hedge wearing PJ-bottoms, a T-shirt, and a pair of slippers the kids sent for father’s day. The sky was black, what stars were up there were blocked out by the ambulance lights, the engine roared over the breeze and the sound of the water. It was invigorating to be standing outside in our nightclothes with the lights blinding us. I wrapped my arms around Mary from behind and she stuffed her hands into the pockets of her robe and rested her head back against me and I pressed my nose to her hair. “Heart attack?” I whispered.

“Maybe,” she said.

A police car showed up and blocked the street, radio squawking and more lights flashing, blinking our faces red, white, and blue.

The Russian girls next door stood barefoot in their driveway. Six Slavic goddesses in sleeping gear: gym shorts and tank tops, wild bed hair tossed in the wind. An exotic collective of wide flat faces, flared nostrils, dark almond-shaped eyes, stretches of taut skin, arms that reached clear around to their backbones, and remarkable Russian basketball feet.

The paramedics emerged from the Henderson house rolling the stretcher. We saw our neighbor sitting up with his shirt off and his chest crisscrossed with white tape. He had one of those clear plastic masks on his surprised face.

“God,” Mary said.

“Oxygen,” I said.

We watched him load into the ambulance. Mary flinched at the vacuum slam of the heavy door, and the ambulance pulled out, a world of light moving down the dark street toward the hospital not more than a mile away. The cop followed, and we waited long enough to see the distraught wife back out of their driveway in her car. “Poor woman,” Mary said. When her taillights blinked away, we turned and went inside. What else could we do?
In the morning we awoke to the thwack and wallop of basketballs hitting cement, the Russian girls pounding out their routine. “The clock’s off,” I said to Mary.

“The power must have blinked,” she said.

I shuffled down to the carport in my robe to get the newspaper.  I didn’t feel well rested. The girls bucked and pivoted one against another, bumping and pushing. Their bare feet from the night before were now firmly encased in flashy basketball footwear, fair hair pinned and pony-tailed, the sun breaking over the water turned their glistening skin golden. A shout out to me and a basketball came over the hedge and bounced into my carport. My chance to rebound. I retrieved it—hard as a rock the ball—and tossed it back to them.

The slap and rap of their game rang upward through my tall narrow house, four stories if you count the attic and the carport. There is storage room down there, a barbeque grill still in the box, a garden hose to spray off the cement, and the recycling bins. Everything brand new. From our old house we sacrificed the worn, overstuffed, furniture. It didn’t suit this place. The kids took what they wanted and the rest went to Goodwill. We lived lean down here. New airy stuff—everything white, glass, chrome. The hard tile kitchen floor pulsed with the basketball pounding while I made coffee and spread the newspaper out on the table. Maybe there would be something about our neighbor: Man next door has heart attack. “They don’t put stuff like that in the newspaper,” Mary said, when she came down dressed for work.

Weekday mornings she rose at six-thirty, went into her bathroom, and emerged at seven preened and primed for the day. Pressed slacks, silk blouse, a blazer, sensible shoes, glasses on a gold chain around her neck, precisely the right touch of make up and hair spray. Hair speckled with gray cut short now. “Low maintenance,” she says, “no time to mess with it.” Mary is still smart looking at fifty-two, turning heads on King Street, still turning mine after thirty years. This morning though, she is puffy-faced and cranky. “I didn’t sleep well.”

“Damn ambulance.” We heard the wife come home about five a.m. and drive out again an hour later. “Maybe you should cook a casserole or something,” I said.

“What!”

“The kid might eat it.”

“Ridiculous.”

“That’s what people do I think.”

“I’m going to work.” She looped her purse strap over her forearm and went down to the carport carrying her covered coffee mug that fit snugly into console between the seats of her sedan. I followed and kissed her goodbye and watched her drive off. We were both tired. The Russian girls still bounded up and down, bouncing through their rigmaroles, elbows and knees in perpetual motion. The beating basketball moved the coffee in my cup. Made my teeth hurt. Every morning after hammering the cement until my house vibrated, the house that would supposedly stand up to Hugo II, the girls took off running down the street. They ran down Lockwood, up Wentworth, to the College of Charleston, presumably to their day of classes and basketball practice. A torrent of indomitable Russian girls running into next week, striding into the future on legs I’d climb to the summit, if I had the heart for it. Man Has Heart Attack While Climbing Giant Russian Girl, or whatever.
The Henderson house looked vacant, the wife’s car gone, the newspaper in their driveway.

I went around the hedge to retrieve the paper and threw it onto the passenger seat of my SUV. No point having the paper lay there advertising the fact that things had gone amiss. I went inside, showered and stood wet at my desk and called my office. Most of my chores involved meeting clients, considering new jobs, checking city codes, and figuring estimates. We were restoration specialists, working on the old homes downtown on which the city imposed a maze of ordinances. The area is valued for its history, hurricanes aside, the past is not to be altered here, you can’t just build an addition or paint your house without permission. I had to keep up on the rules and regulations and know how to deal with them while maintaining happy clients. That morning I went to a new job on Beaufain, a house so large the owner had spent five years painting it and the place was still a mess. Patchwork and peeling. The bushes and windows all dappled with paint. Ladders, dropcloths, empty paint cans and spent brushes everywhere. The man had inherited the house and was trying to econo-paint it by hiring old hippies in vans and lowland hicks in pickups. I told him my crew could wrap it up inside of a month for fourteen thousand dollars. The figure put him on the verge of tears. “This house is pre-Civil War,” he said, “it withstood Hugo.”

“Yes, I know, but restoration means breathing life into the past. That doesn’t come cheap.”

The man looked stricken. I often feel sorry for my clients, trapped as they are in mazes of their own making, but there is nothing I can do, they are battling the forces of time, ultimately a loser’s game. This was a magnificent old house but it had cracked bricks, white and powdery, rotted window casements, and thin single-pane glass. None of which could be ignored. I left the owner to decide and drove around to inspect jobs-in-progress. A tile roof south of Broad, window replacement on Stuart, attic insulation on the Battery. By midmorning I was exhausted and stopped at Starbucks. I saw the College of Charleston basketball schedule, a stack of little cards with a calendar on the back, and slipped one into my shirt pocket. Maybe I’ll purchase two tickets some game night, sit with Mary, a sweater slung over her back, eating junk food and drinking Coke.

Weekends at our old house in North Charleston Mary gardened and I puttered around with the lawn and bushes. Now Mary sleeps in on Saturday while I get up early, before the Russian girls even, and walk down Barre Street in the dark to the bakery and carry back a paper bag rolled at the top with bagels still warm when the sun comes up.

Weekdays we have lunch together unless one of us is dining with a client. We eat at Del Vecchio Casa, our favorite Italian place, or if in the mood we have lighter fare someplace. We drink wine or iced tea, depending on what we have to do in the afternoon. If we have wine we sometimes go home for a nap. Making love in places other than our bedroom has been thwarted by Mary’s bad back. “I can’t be twisted into strange positions,” she says. But maybe we’ve just grown too haughty to bear the embarrassment and coarseness of older people having sex in young places. After thirty years Mary knows everything I know, everything I’ve done, she’s heard all my funny stories, my morning farting, belching after lunch. The dollops of charm allotted to me are long dispensed and worn for her, I imagine, like antique coins. But we are inseparable, incapable of imagining life without each other.

That day at lunch we had iced tea. “What are your afternoon plans?” Mary asked me.

I was thinking of going to basketball practice at the College of Charleston but I didn’t say that. “I have an appointment to look at a sailboat,” I said.

“Not that again,” she said.

“Just looking,” I said.

Our townhouse faced the marina. If we had a boat we could look out over it from the tiny deck that stuck out from our living room. All the townhouses have the same little screened appendage. “Veranda,” the realtor called it. First thing to go when a hurricane hits, I thought.

“I’m thinking of the future,” I said.

“I can’t see us on a sailboat,” she said. “My back wouldn’t take it.”

Mary had dark circles under her eyes. “You feeling okay?” I asked.

“I can’t even swim,” she said.

“You should learn, be good for your back, maybe take lessons at the college.”

After lunch we walked down King Street to the florist where we know the owner. Mary bought flowers each weekday and had me carry them back to the house. In the window of a travel agency was a replica of a white cruise ship, one of those Carnival tour monstrosities. Mary pointed. “That’s about our speed,” she said, “boatwise.”

“Boat wise,” I repeated. “That’s us.”

In front of the auction house we kissed goodbye and I drove down Calhoun toward the marina. Maybe a cabin cruiser, I thought. Too much wind on sailboat. The neighbor’s newspaper was still on the seat and I had to pass hospital to get to the marina so I pulled in. I figured it was the neighborly thing to do.

“A mister Henderson,” I said to the desk nurse. “Heart attack.”

“Joseph P. Henderson,” she said, directing me to the room.

His skin was pasty white and he had an IV in his arm. A game show played on TV. There was a chair for visitors but I didn’t sit. “Hi Joe,” I said. “How you doing?”

“Oh,” he said. “No one seems to know.”

“Well, doctors.”

“Yeah.”

I carried his rolled newspaper but there was one on the chair along with some magazines so I kept it under my arm. It wasn’t like talking to him over the hedge. He seemed embarrassed about lying in bed since there didn’t seem to be anything wrong with him. Turned out not to have been a heart attack.

“I don’t know what happened,” he said. “I was just sitting there, reading a Time magazine, my wife and kid already in bed, when suddenly I couldn’t breathe.”

“No,” I said.

“Yeah,” he said.

“No cigarette or anything?”

“No, no nothing, I just couldn’t breathe. I got up and went outside. Figured some fresh air—you know. But it didn’t help,” he said. “I panicked. Went inside for my keys.

Thought I might drive to the hospital.”

“You should have banged on our door,” I said.

Mary and I slept while he stood in his driveway below our bedroom trying to absorb oxygen at any cost, through his skin, his brain, ingest it into his blood through sheer force of will, choking to death and begging God for air, more time, anything.

“I didn’t know what I was doing,” he said. “I thought I was in the eye of a hurricane,” he said.

“I’ve heard that,” I said. “Air sucked from the eye, people at the center suffocate.”

“Worse feeling in the world,” he said. “I just waited to black out.”

“Then what happened?”

“I ended up in my car, started it, and switched on the air full blast.”

He had a big white Cadillac. I pictured him with his forehead pressed to the padded dash, his mouth wide open over the AC vent, trying to suck air.

“But it was no good,” he said. I feared they’d find me dead in the morning and think I committed suicide, so I went inside to wake my wife.”

After the paramedics came and had him sitting up in the ambulance with the tape crossing his chest and the mask on his face he took clear breaths of oxygen and felt better. Halfway to the hospital he insisted he was fine and tried to talk them into turning around. “I’m okay now,” he said, “take me back home.”

The ambulance crew chuckled, “Not likely,” one of them said. “We get paid to take you to the hospital.”

“I’ll write you a check,” Joe said. “Really, I’m fine now.”

The doctors at the hospital didn’t think he was fine. “No more cigarettes,” they said, and kept him there running tests, running up his insurance rates, writing on charts and scribbling prescriptions. The nurses brought pills and syrups and shots and bad food.  When it was obvious they had no idea what was wrong with him, they let him go home.

A few months later, in the late days of August, when whatever breathable air there is in Charleston has been sucked down into the muck of the lowlands, it was the same routine at Joe’s house. The ambulance came late at night, our clock still glowed. Mary propped up on one elbow again, a few months older. “Not again,” she said, peering out through the blind slats.

The lights circling above us on the ceiling. “Like writing on the wall,” I said.

Mary got up and put on her robe again. I went to take a leak again and watched from the bathroom window. Once more we stood at the end of our driveway in our nightclothes, the warm wind blowing hard from the water, the Russian girls barefoot again, faces lit by cellphones held to their chests. They’d been gone all summer, the mornings silent and lonely after Mary left for work. I’d stand naked and wet from the shower longing for the basketball pounding that gave a heartbeat to the neighborhood. I’d watch from the kitchen window, trying to catch Joe at the hedge retrieving his paper, grunting as he bent over and straightened up.

This time he was laid out flat. Strapped to the stretcher with white tape across his chest again and the oxygen mask on his face. His head slumped to one side. His cheek pressed to the white sheet. His lips blue and blubbery loose. His eyes bulging. “Trying to breathe again,” I said.

Later we heard that he’d stopped.

This time Mary made the casserole. We sent flowers. Relatives came from out of town, filled his driveway with cars.

No one knew why Joe died, that was the scary thing. He just stopped breathing. His heart was fine. So we couldn’t say “heart attack” as a logical reason and then go through our days watching what we ate, having cantaloupe for lunch instead of calzone, cutting down on the bagels.

“Seems like there should be some cause of death,” Mary said.

The newspaper said Joe was only 53. We vowed to take brisk walks around the neighborhood, planned to spend more time with the kids, maybe get that boat in the marina. I’d been thinking about a speedboat.

August droned into September. We got up early and went to work. A For Sale sign appeared on the Henderson house. Joe’s kid went off to college. The poor woman was left alone and soon hurricane season came down upon us. Ever since Hugo people were jumpy in the fall. We plotted the depressions coming across the Atlantic from Africa. What else could we do? In the evenings sitting outside on the veranda, the building warm from the sun beating on it all day, we watched the water and the boats coming and going, the breeze keeping the mosquitos away. The Russian girls would turn on their driveway light attracting moths and pound the basketball, the sound ringing up through our dark house, driving the blood inside my head.

And when they stopped and went to bed—all together I imagined, like a communal force—the blood settled down to my hands and feet, and there was only the wind and water, the storms coming, inevitable and potent, taking full aim at us—at how it was for us now. What we’ve come to, and what we have left after good times and bad, sickness and health. Mary and I hold hands and suck air gingerly, taking tiny breaths together, trying to make them last, trying not to use up our quota.

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