Up and down our street, coughs pepper the night, soft gunfire from scattered positions. Our ability to fall into a deep sleep is impossible, as our windows are wide open to catch any bit of tepid air flow over our sweating bodies. No air conditioning in these small ranches.
When the cough entered the five children across the street, nights became even more desperate struggles for rest and peace.
On those hotter nights, when I feel something burning me up from inside, and I hear a front door creak open and a screen door pushed aside, I rise. And watch. The neighbor’s Ford truck, patched with spackle, has been gone for days now. He’s out on the ocean somewhere, dragging in lobster. When he is home, you can small the sea from the truck bed. So Catherine, his wife, is alone with the kids, trying to keep them breathing till morning.
Light behind her from their hallway silhouettes curves, a dark shape that holds up her translucent, damp gown. When the steam from the shower doesn’t work, she brings them outside to clear their lungs. Under the red maple in the corner of the lawn, in full leaf now, they are little wilting forms, barely visible away from the window light. Just rumbling sounds and exhausted wails.
When things are really critical, she is just in bra and panties. Too overburdened to care who sees, kids on bent hips. Night seems heavier with small cries to get air.
Heavy, but beautiful on those black nights. Sometimes strobing lights from an ambulance flicker across the white clapboards. And I am coming home from the sea, the truck bed smelling of ocean catch. A well-lit house full of fever-flushed. Comforting one, smoothing another’s brown, holding my wife close, feeling some of the night’s coolness still on her freckled skin. The roughness of her lace-edged bra.
Stop looking, my wife says from behind me. Chastened, I follow her back to the bedroom. The wall clock in the kitchen ticks loudly and firmly. The refrigerator vibrates. Floor boards creek with our sullen weight.
The comforter on the floor. On our backs, arms and legs spread out, only our hands between us touch. I stroke her hand, her concave stomach that hollows out between her sharp hip bones. When I pull my hand back to my side, she grabs it and won’t let go.
The coughs continue to ricochet against our mildewed shingles. They rattle and shake and call us out of a place we can no longer sink into.