By Ben Nardolilli
My mother was the first one to remark on my coughing. I guess over the phone it sounded worse. Through wires it was compressed and released with such ferocity it must have sounded like I was a machine slowly coming apart at its innermost gears. I had noticed my coughing before she said anything, but my mother was the first to think it was serious. She asked me if I was all right and if my room was clean. I told her that I felt fine enough and that the parts of the room I was responsible for were clean. The dorm room was only mine for the summer, as long as the enrichment camp was in session. People who used it before me and the cleaning staff may have left stains and molds that I had yet to find.
“I’m just worried, that’s all.”
“I know, but it’s probably just allergies.”
“Do you have anything you can take?”
“We probably have some things in the camp first aid kit.”
“Are the kids coming down with something?”
“I doubt it. They all seem healthy.”
I coughed, and my mother asked if I was coughing in my sleep. “No, just first thing when I wake up in the morning, and before I go to bed.”
“Let me know if you go to the doctor. I mean, it should be okay. The university has a hospital.”
“The camp uses this clinic place, if I have to go see a doctor.”
I wonder if my mother called everyone at the camp to ask about my coughing, because after she made note of it, everyone started to comment on it. The coughing was starting to become louder and the fits got longer, but it was odd how things were suddenly noticed. Eventually the coughing faded into the background noise of the camp. There were the birds, the wind, the sounds of foursquare being played, and then my throat irritation. It only became a problem when there were no other sounds for it to hide behind. During meetings and classes, it became a bother to the campers and the other counselors. No one would frown at me, but I could see everyone fighting the temptation to stare at me as if I had any control over the coughing.
Drinking water did not help, but when I wanted to give people relief from my hacking, the water fountain was the place to go. Then my coughing would be contained in the hallway. Hydration was not the issue, and I found out that allergies were not to blame either. If I stayed indoors all day, I still kept coughing. It felt like there was something in my lungs that had to come out, but as hard as I tried, nothing would remove it. Some sort of putty, clay, or clue was inside me, shortening my breathing, and tiring out my diaphragm. I never hacked up blood, which was good, but I began going to bed sore inside. It was a hurt that resembled a straight punch to the stomach.
As the week continued, I started to lose my breath whenever a coughing fit began. Once again, people took notice and asked me if I was all right. I started to be honest and I told them I had no idea. The kids held their breath around me and a few of the counselors did so too, not wasting any air on talking, but relying on hand and facial gestures to greet me instead. Being treated like a leper I could deal with. There is always one person at every camp who is perpetually sick. However the coughing started to come in the middle of the night and in my non-air conditioned room I would twist and sweat into my bed sheets, hoping to exhaust myself and sleep through the coughing.
The relief would come too late and when I woke up in the morning, I was barely awake enough to deal with the kids. From time to time, they had to knock on my door and wake me up. After opening my eyes and sitting up in bed, the coughing would immediately resume. The days began to drift by me. I ran into people and inanimate objects. What speech I could get through the coughing was slurred. When my boss, Perry, saw that my cup was overflowing with ginger ale at the self-serve beverage station in the cafeteria, he took me aside and asked me if I had to take time off to go see a doctor.
“No, I’m fine, the kids, the kids need me.”
“You almost walked in front of a car this morning.”
“I was just showing the kids what not to do.”
“I want you to take the camp car to the clinic, I’ll give you the address after breakfast.”
After we all ate and the kids went to their morning classes, I was off to try to stop my coughing. I got the location of the clinic and the keys to one of the camp vehicles. I was given control of a large, shiny black SUV. When I got inside, it still had that new rental car smell. The seats, upholstery, and steering wheel were all smooth and gray. I was only used to driving a standard automobile, so I had to adjust the seat and mirrors to avoid all potential blindspots. I started the car and went away from the camp. When I turned, I gripped the steering wheel, afraid the leviathan that I was driving would tip over at any moment.
The camp was fortunate to be nestled away on a college campus. Going outside its wooden and organized confines reminded me once more that there was a real world around it. I got on the highway and took off, looking for an address that could point me towards the clinic. It took some getting used to a return to the suburban world, leaving behind the columns and neo-classical flourishes that I had taken for granted. If I stared out ahead above all the signage, I could catch a glimpse of the verdant mountains. They were majestic and balanced in their color and shape.
However, the other cars, the road, and the traffic lights distracted me from looking there for long. Instead, I was stuck staring at bumper stickers, fast-food restaurants, chain stores, outlet malls, half-empty parking lots, thrift stores, mega-churches, fields of weeds, and stagnant pools around broken fountains. All I could think of when looking at the stagnant water were mosquitoes enjoying it as a warm habitat. The only people I saw were customers briefly emerging from one store and quickly running into another, or darting across a parking lot to avoid the sight of their shadows.
I stopped at one light, and while coughing, thought it was where I was supposed to make a turn. Unfortunately, I had confused Seminole Lane with Seminole Road, and turned down the wrong street into an encampment of single family homes. I turned again, hoping to make a quick exit out of the neighborhood. I kept an eye out for children even though none appeared. The lawns looked too nice to ever let children run their bare feet through them. My quick turn did not bring me to the highway, so I turned again, then again, and finally, one more time. I envisioned that I was making one big left-hand turn, and hoping that it did not put me too far down the highway.
The last turn sent me into a cul-de-sac, so I put myself in reverse, then straightened out to go back the way I came. I was already missing the campus and the camp. There were no landmarks around me, except the mountains in the distance. Nothing looked new, so I believed I was going the right way. If I was taking a different route, it did not matter. I ended up back on the highway. After another mile, I reached Seminole Road and made the correct turn. The clinic was in front of me, a red brick building stuck in the middle of a black asphalt lot meant for a movie theater behind it. I parked my behemoth and went into the clinic, coughing my way to the front desk. The woman there handed me papers to sign and a pen to use.
When I was done, I sat waiting for the doctor. The room was filled with small children and their mothers. I kept my coughing to myself by putting my mouth into my elbow. This had the added benefit of amusing the kids. My coughing accidently produced sounds like flatulence from time to time because of the combination of lips and skin. The parents were not happy and every time I pretended to let one rip, they frowned at me and shook their heads. A few tisks were also involved. A man in a light blue coat came into the waiting area, mispronounced my name, and lead me back to a sanitary room.
He did not introduce himself to me. I had no time to ask because he wanted to know my symptoms. He recorded everything on a chart and then began investigating me. I removed my shirt and he put a cold metal disc on my skin. The doctor, if he was a doctor, did not have to ask me to cough. I supplied it for him, free of charge and completely voluntarily. After listening to my insides, the doctor concluded that what I needed was a prescription for a mucous clearing drug. Once I took the paper, the doctor stopped me and called the nurse in. I asked him what was wrong.
“I want to clean your ears.”
“We’re going to wash your ears out.”
“Will that stop the coughing?”
“No, it’s just good to do every once in a while.”
So they made me lay down on a synthetic cushion while crinkling up some white paper. The procedure seemed longer than it actually was. They shot water into the middle of my ear, then repeated with the other. It was an uncomfortable experience, like someone was pressing the eraser end of a pencil against my ear drum, and then the eraser melted away down the side of my jaw line. I squirmed but the nurse held me in place. When the cleaning was done, they showed me a small basin that has collected the runoff. Swimming in the dirty water were two small clumps of brown that had been lodged inside me without knowing.
“HOW DO YOU FEEL?”
“GOOD, YOU CAN GO NOW. THE NURSE WILL SHOW YOU OUT. LET ME KNOW IF THINGS GET WORSE.”
Thankfully, the nurse did not say anything. Her heels were loud though, squeezing out the air under them with a popping sound that felt like mischievous hands exploding a paper bag right next to me. The front desk handed me more paper work and when I signed it, the pen scratching sounded like laser beams and rocket launchings from old sci-fi movies. Back outside I coughed and all the wheezing vibrations that ricocheted through me were clear and audible. When I was done I now had pains in my ears along with the familiar soreness in my abdomen to contend with.
I drove back to the camp, keeping me eyes to the road while coughing. The radio was too loud, so I turned it off. Someone cut me off and almost hit my car. My instinct was to honk, but I stopped myself. I was the only person who would be hurt by it. I tried to think of something positive from the visit, and thought about the little balls of filth they had taken out of me. At least those were not clogging up my ears anymore. I did feel slightly cleaner, and when I left the clinic, I noticed my balance was improved. But I was not sure how much longer I could withstand the effects of having such good hearing. The doctor had not given me a clear diagnosis, only a drug to take. I had no idea if I was a risk to the other children.
I returned the car to the campus and went out to return the keys and join the children and other counselors who were playing outside. While I walked, the keys were in my pocket going off like the giant chimes an orchestra employs. As soon as the campers saw me, a group broke off and ran over. I braced myself for them, their screams and laughter rising like a tidal wave. It rose and then broke once they reached me, their voices coming down and ringing in my freshly scrubbed ears.
WHERE DID YOU GO WHERE WERE YOU DID YOU GET SOMETHING ARE YOU OKAY DID YOU GO TO THE DOCTOR WHAT WAS TRAFFIC LIKE WHAT IS THE EVENING ACTIVITY DO YOU WANT TO PLAY FOURSQUARE CAN I STAY UP LATER I HAVE TO CALL MY MOTHER CAN I CALL IF BILLY CALLS CAN I SLEEP ON THE SOFA IN THE SUITE I HAD TWO PIECES OF FRUIT AT LUNCH DOES THAT MEAN I DON’THAVE TO EAT ANYTHING FOR DINNER DO YOU LIKE MY BANDAID I CUT MY KNEE AT LUNCH I LEARNED ABOUT SHARK GUTS TODAY!
“Okay…okay…okay,” was all I could mutter to them, hanging to the phrase with a wince in my face like it was a life preserve. I did not want to affirm or deny anything they said, it would only encourage more talking. I only let them know that I was listening and heard all they said. There was no other choice for my ears.
The kids departed and I coughed my way over to the picnic table where Tim, one of the other counselors, was. I said hello to him and he asked about the visit.
“How’s it going? Did the doctor do anything?”
“He cleaned my ears out.”
“Wow. Did that work?”
I put my finger to my lips and I tried to take in a moment of silence. It was useless. My ears still picked up on too much.
“Tim,” I told him, “I can hear flies fucking.”