portion of the artwork for Tiff Holland's fiction

Tiff Holland

I’m not afraid of the cough anymore. It’s worse now, sure. Sometimes, it sounds like cats fighting, bad plumbing. Lately, it doesn’t sound like any one thing and nothing natural, but Mom says it doesn’t hurt. She pulls inhalers from her bra the way a magician pulls silk scarves from his mouth. Sometimes, Mom spits up a little into one of the Kleenexes she also keeps in her bra. Her face goes red. She can’t speak, but she says it doesn’t hurt. She exhales before she puts the inhaler to her lips, leaving room for the medicine when she inhales. Watching her is how I finally figured out how to smoke pot. She’s OK afterwards, a little hoarse, but OK, and this cough, some version of it, is the way I’ve found her for almost thirty years, in the aisles of the Acme or the Salvation Army. It’s a sort of radar, each hack louder as I close in.

She’s had a good day. Lunch at Cracker Barrel. Shoes for Lauren at PayLess and now a final trip to Walgreens. The shopping cart is prophylactic, something to lean on if she starts up again. She tries to get me to take one, too, in case I lose my balance, but I’m feeling cocky.

I head down the card aisle because it’s the farthest to the left from the entrance, excepting cosmetics. I have no interest in cosmetics and I always travel left to right. Mom wheels away toward the middle. She’s in her red outfit: red capris, red v-neck t-shirt and long-sleeve red t-shirt over it so no one can see her arms. I’ve worked my way down to sinus medications when she starts coughing. Nothing major. I head up to paperbacks, try to make out the titles with those first two letters missing, the ones I can’t get back. Language is forgiving. I fill in the blanks. I figure there’s nothing I want to read, but I like looking at the covers, picking them up, feeling the raised surface of the smallest paperbacks, wondering why the publishers do that, raise the lettering or the outline of the cover art. I like being able to get close to things, not to have the cart or a walker between me and everything else.

In the meantime, the coughing has gotten worse, constant bark-like, but nothing like the noises I’ve heard her make just sitting at the kitchen table, struggling to pull the phlegm up the knots of her scarred bronchi. So I’m surprised to see her between candy and magazines with a circle of people forming around, lifting their arms to hold hands.

“Is it OK if we pray for you?” a man asks. He’s wearing khakis and a short-sleeve button-down shirt, glasses. Beside him is an older woman in a “World’s Best Grandma” t-shirt and on the other side a teenage boy with a buzzcut in jeans and a UT shirt. Mom continues to cough, louder and more desperately. They lower their heads without waiting for an answer.

I walk toward them as fast as I can, the products on the shelf blurring with movement. Stores making me dizzy. I should have been more cautious or stayed with her. Up close, Mom’s eyes are big and round like a caught animal, and I can see she’s trying to get the inhaler out before they open their eyes back up, before they catch her with her hand down her shirt.

I feel the stumble before it’s out of control. I have time to correct, but I don’t. I let myself sway into the shelf enough to knock down a box of Russell Stovers so that when the impromptu prayer group looks up, it’s at me, and not at Mom who has managed to pull the emergency inhaler out and exhale and then inhale deeply. I pull myself upright before the group can encircle me.

“I’m good,” I say as they help put the boxes on the shelf. Back in the car I can’t tell if she’s been laughing or crying, her face is wet and red and she dabs at it with more Kleenex, still out of breath from her escape.

“Did they pray for you, too?” she asks, reaching behind me to shove a handful of used tissues into the trash bag behind the front seat. By the time I drop her at her garage, the coughing has stopped entirely and she remembers the abandoned cart.

“Darn it. Now I don’t have anything sweet.”

But I know she does, some kind of cake or cookie is always in her fridge or on the countertop. I offer to go back.

“They don’t have the ones I really like anyway. Fastbreak. So hard to find and when you do they’re never fresh. Next time I’m going to the gas station. They’re better there.”

She hits the button on her key chain and the garage door goes up. She leans over to kiss me, thanks me for driving. She doesn’t rub the lipstick in the way she used to even when I was in my thirties, and I don’t rub it away, either.

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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 31 | Winter 2011