“Why do you always have to walk behind me?”
“I’m sorry, Leo,” she said softly.
“What are you sorry for? I’m the one who’s sick.” Instantly remorseful, he softened his voice. “Come on. Let’s go to the pharmacy now and order this thing.” He could feel the pressure on his arm where Mary had laid her hand. He shook her off, afraid he might cry. Leo wanted to stay angry. I’m going to beat this, he thought, and crying won’t do me any good. He knew his emphysema was getting worse. Why else the oxygen tank? He knew, everyone else would know now too. Every week a truck with green oxygen cylinders at attention in the back would arrive and deliver all the air Leo would need to breathe. Neighbors’ eyes would peek out from behind caught-up window curtains, heads would shake. “Poor, Leo,” they’d say. “He must be real bad.”
“I don’t want pity,” he barked at Mary.
“I mean it! Don’t be saying, ‘Poor Leo’. I won’t stand for it.”
Today, Dr. Morris had declared him retired. Leo looked hard at Mary as she passed him going into the pharmacy next door. She looked frail and old, stooped, gray haired, shriveled. But she’s not really old, he thought. Fifty-six is not old. She’s got a long life ahead of her - without me. The thought froze him. Who is going to take care of her when I’m gone? Never mind when I’m gone...who is going to take care of her while I’m an invalid sitting next to an oxygen tank, sucking in air? Leo gently touched her shoulder. She turned, revealing a tear slipping down her cheek. Leo moved on ahead, leaving her searching her pockets for a tissue.
“Can I help you” The pharmacy clerk was reaching over the counter to take the prescription from Leo’s hand.
“Yeah.” Leo was breathing loudly. The slip of paper was creased in the corner from his sweaty fingers. “Dr. Morris said to order this here.”
The clerk smoothed out the prescription. “I’ll be right back.” She stepped to the back of the pharmacist’s counter and picked up a beige wall phone. Leo coughed repeatedly into a tissue, struggling to regain his breath.
“What was that prescription for?” Mary whispered.
“An oxygen tank?” Her blue eyes wide.
“That’s what I said. You going deaf?”
Mary sat down in the folding chair near the counter. Leo followed and sat next to her. “Instead of going to the hospital for inhalation therapy, I’ll do it at home now.”
“But you only went to out-patient twice a week.” She searched his face. ”Will you have to use it everyday?”
“I’ll use it whenever I need it.” Leo wiped his forehead with his palm. “Boy, it’s hot in here.”
“No. It’s you,” Mary said. “Even the girl’s got a sweater on.” She nodded in the direction of the clerk.
Leo unzipped his jacket. He could feel the sweat collecting at the small of his back. His fingers tingled. Damn lungs, he thought.
“Mr. Fitzhugh?” the clerk called out. Leo went back to the counter, leaning heavily on the ledge in front of the register. “The company’s making deliveries this afternoon. Will you be home?” The woman held the phone away from her mouth as she waited for Leo to reply.
Leo nodded, unable to find the air to make the words more than a thought. The clerk spoke on the phone a minute, and then returned to Leo at the counter.
“You still covered under the City of Boston Fire Department?” She asked. Leo nodded.
“Okay then, sign this and I’ll show you how to use the equipment.” Leo signed and saw his address and the words “weekly delivery” beneath his telephone number. The clerk pushed a plastic bag across the counter to him. He could see clear plastic tubing and a clear green mask inside the bag. Looks just like the aquarium tank set-up we bought Patrick for his First Holy Communion, he thought. I certainly feel like I’m breathing under water lately.
“Do you have any questions?” The clerk was asking. Mary’s voice cut straight through to Leo’s wandering consciousness.
“No, but can we call you if we have any problems when we get all the equipment home?” He thanked God for Mary. She had followed Leo to the counter and had been listening to the clerk. He felt her leaning on his arm. No, he realized that she had taken his arm to support him. He loosened her hold. “I can stand, thank you very much,” he said. Leo grabbed the plastic bag off the counter. “Do you suppose you have something you could put this into? I don’t need the entire neighborhood knowing my business.” Leo hadn’t noticed that the clerk was already opening a bag with “Sullivan’s Pharmacy” printed on the front. He felt himself flush as he handed back the tubing. Mary thanked the clerk, took the equipment and swept out of the store. Once they were out of the medical building, Mary turned to Leo and glared. “What is the matter with you?”
“What are you in such a huff about?” Leo squashed his cap onto his head.
“You didn’t have to be so rude to the girl in there. She’s only trying to do her job.“ Mary started down the street, leaving Leo standing in the way of the door as two teen-aged boys tried to get past him into the building. “Hey!” Leo yelled at them. “Can’t you say ‘excuse me’? Show some respect.” The boys laughed at him while one of them stuck up his middle finger. “Damned punks.” Leo muttered and bent over to catch his breath after yelling. He remembered vividly the time that Mary had been mugged three years earlier. The police never found out who did it. She lost all her cards and cash. Luckily she hadn’t been roughed-up, just a sprained shoulder from where they’d yanked her purse and ran. He wouldn’t let that happen again, that’s for sure. It was his job to protect her. He felt his breath returning to near normal.
Leo looked up and saw Mary waiting for him at the corner. He hated seeing her standing there all alone like that. The streets weren’t as safe as they used to be. He hurried for about ten paces before he felt the tingling in his hands and lips. No air, damn it, he thought. He stopped just a few feet shy of his wife and had to bend over a little until his lungs could catch up with his body’s need for oxygen.
“Look at you. Why don’t you stop yelling at people and take it easy? You can’t even breathe.” Mary was patting him on the back gently. He stood up straight, fists clenched.
“I’m okay.” His head turned instinctively toward a siren beginning to wail in the distance. He walked to the edge of the sidewalk to look down the street in the direction of the sound. “Must be Ladder 23,” he said. He looked in the opposite direction to check for smoke in the sky. Nothing. Car accident or heart attack, he thought. Quickly, the fire truck moved up Belgrade Avenue. Leo took off his cap, waving at the engine as it went by. The tiller on the back turned and yelled, “HEY, CHIEF!” The sound lingered for a few seconds in the air. Leo put his cap back on his head and said, “I was right. Ladder 23. Must be something down towards Rossie Square.” Leo continued along the sidewalk, his step much lighter than before; Mary matched his step.
“These few blocks are getting longer,” she said.
“I’ve been walking these blocks for twenty years. They don’t seem any longer to me.” Quiet again...except for Leo’s labored breathing.
“Look, Leo. It’s Patrick.” Mary started straight for the green Volkswagen bug pulling up to the curb.
“Did you tell him I had an appointment today?” Leo asked.
“No.” Mary gingerly climbed into the back seat of the waiting car. Leo hurried behind her to hold the door open, and then climbed into the bucket seat up front. “Why don’t you get a regular sized American car so that your mother doesn’t have to fold herself up like an accordion to get into this thing. Americans everywhere out of work and you buy German. It’s a sin,” he said, shaking his head.
“Hi, Dad. How are you? Nice to see you too.” Patrick smiled as he spoke.
“Just drive.” Leo looked out the window at the passing shops.
“Well, Pops, I had a good day today, and you aren’t going to drag me down!” Patrick looked into the rearview mirror and winked at his mother.
“I stopped by the house and threw dinner on,” Patrick said.
“You’re so thoughtful Pat.” Mary reached forward and patted her only son on the shoulder.
“How’d you know we’d be coming up the avenue?” she asked.
“I saw Pop’s appointment on the calendar and came down to see if I could catch you.”
“We could have walked.” Leo coughed harshly and spit into a tissue.
“Well, I certainly appreciate the ride.” Mary’s voice had a note of false cheerful in it. “So, what’s for dinner?” she asked.
“Spaghetti and chicken cutlets.”
“When did you learn to cook cutlets?” Mary asked.
“You don’t date an Italian girl without learning something about boiling pasta and opening a jar of spaghetti sauce.” Patrick glanced at his father who looked straight ahead. “Actually, I went to the Centre Deli in Dedham and bought the cutlets already made and ready to heat.”
“So you’re still seeing that Italian girl.” Leo looked out the passenger window.
“She has a name, Pop. It’s Lisa.” Patrick slowed for the red light.
“Don’t get wise with me. I’m still your father.” Leo breathed fast and wheezy.
“I don’t mean to be wise, but you could use her name. Lisa.” He said it again. Patrick and Leo both stared straight ahead. He just couldn’t stand the fact that Patrick had broken it off with Meg, his high school sweetheart. Meg had been perfect for him. Their families had lived in the same neighborhood and gone to the same church. Leo never asked what happened, he just felt the resentment rise whenever Lisa was mentioned. Leo recalled last year’s Easter dinner when Patrick had introduced her to the family. She was an exchange student from Italy, studying international law at Harvard. She was beautiful and smart. Obviously, she had used that to turn Patrick’s head. Leo hoped it was temporary. He looked out of the window at the neighborhood, wishing he could turn back time.
“Don’t forget to take the right turn before Montvale, Pat.” Mary directed. “Since that new apartment building went up on the corner there are so many cars parked on the street so they made it a one way the other way. You’ll have to go all the way around.”
“Remember when we moved into this house, Dad?” Patrick asked.
“Of course I do. That was the year I made Lieutenant. You read my practice exam questions to me while we worked on the porch. Those were good days.” Leo looked at his son, remembering how close he had felt back then to him. Everyone always said how much alike Leo and Patrick were. Leo never saw it when he looked at his son, but at times...when the light hit Pat’s jaw just right, and the jaw was set just so... Pat did look just like Leo’s own father. God, how I hated that man, thought Leo. Patrick is not at all like him. At least I don’t drink, and I never hit him.
“I think we were happier when the porch was finished than we were with your promotion to lieutenant,” Mary was saying.
Leo pictured himself sitting on his porch, drinking a beer with Mary at his side, knitting needles clicking away. His thoughts were interrupted by his cough. Deep. Hacking. Painful. Patrick pulled over to the curb. “You okay?” he asked. Leo fumbled in his pocket.
“Yeah.” He choked. Mary tried to pass a tissue over his shoulder, but Leo brushed it away. “I got it.” He said a little too harshly.
“Give Ma a break. She’s only trying to help.“ Patrick got out of the car and slammed the door. Leo spit and noticed his hands. They were shaking. His fingernails were tinged blue, the skin around the nails transparent and bleached.
Patrick went around and opened Leo’s door, then stood back and let him get out by himself. Leo turned to let Mary out of the back but he couldn’t find the lever to release the seat and jerked on it hard several times instead. “Here let me do that, Dad,” Patrick offered.
“I can get your mother out of this contraption by myself.” Leo continued to fumble and jerk the seat forward. Patrick reached out from behind and released the seat. Mary, poised, hopped right out holding onto Leo’s arm. Leo made a big show of helping her along the sidewalk while Patrick locked up the bug.
While they were climbing the long staircase to the porch, the delivery truck with Leo’s oxygen pulled up. The driver shouted out the open window. “Hey, you the Fitzhugh’s?”
“Yes.” Patrick answered, glancing from Mary to Leo and back to the driver. They watched silently as the man parked the truck and carefully maneuvered one green cylinder off the back. He rolled it up to the house on a dolly and then bounced the metal container gently as he backed it up the stairs.
Finally, Patrick spoke.” Okay. What’s this?”
“Oxygen,” the driver said.
“I can see that. What’s it doing here?” He looked at his father as he spoke. Mary pulled him away from the tank. “Let it go for now.”
Patrick’s eyes were wide, searching his mother’s face, looking for some reassurance. She avoided his look. “I thought he was getting better with the therapies and the new drugs?” Patrick said, holding his mother back as the man and Leo went into the first-floor apartment.
“Later.” She left Patrick standing on the porch as she followed Leo into the living room.
“Maybe we should put it in the bedroom?” Leo said while looking at Mary.
The driver patted the tank. ”Hey this thing’s under pressure,” he said. “It’s not good to be moving it all over. Where’re ya gonna use it?” He and Mary looked at each other, and she finally pointed to the corner of the living room next to Leo’s brown leather Barcolounger. The driver set the tank, completed the paperwork with Leo, then took his dolly out the front door.
“Now that’s really swell,” Leo said as he surveyed the scene. “At least I won’t clash with the furniture. Green and brown. Me and my oxygen tank.” Leo left the room. Mary put the bag from Sullivan’s down next to the tank and took their jackets into the kitchen, hung them on the pegs by the cellar door and filled the tea kettle with water.
“You having tea?” she asked Leo.
“Of course I want tea, and some of that soda bread you made yesterday.” Leo sat at the table in front of the china teapot and put the tea bags in, leaving only the red and white lettered octagons hanging outside the lid. He struggled to get his breathing under control and finally folded his hands on the table to wait for his tea.
“Suppose you explain that tank in the parlor.” Patrick said as he sat opposite Leo at the table, hands folded, a mirror to his father. “Please?” He added.
“There’s nothing to tell. The doctor thought it would be more convenient to have the tank here instead of me running down to the hospital a couple of times a week. That’s all.” Leo held onto the tea bag tabs while Mary poured the boiling water into the pot.
“Is the doctor going to sign you back onto the active list?”
Leo bobbed the tea bags up and down inside the teapot several times before fitting on the lid. “Not exactly.”
“What does that mean?” Mary asked.
“You told me that you were going back on the active list. Are you still on sick leave, then?” Patrick asked.
Silently, Leo removed the lid and bobbed the tea bags one more time.
“Well?” Patrick insisted.
“Well, actually...I’m going on the retirement list.”
“What?” Mary sat down hard on the chair next to Leo and grabbed his arm. “You didn’t tell me that!”
“I only just found out today at the doctor’s. Did you expect me to explain it all in the middle of Belgrade Avenue?”
Patrick rose slowly and went to the refrigerator for the butter and milk. “How bad are you?”
“The emphysema is the same. The only difference will be that I won’t be going to the firehouse or to headquarters anymore.” Leo wheezed and coughed, getting up from the table. Mary and Patrick exchanged looks.
Leo went to the living room with Mary and Patrick close behind. Leo picked up the bag from the floor by the tank and opened it, struggling to suppress the cough while scanning the directions for the equipment. But Leo was coughing so hard now that he began to turn red, his eyes tearing.
“Let Patrick help you with that.” Mary tried to take the tubing from his hands. He shook her off and clutched the directions to his chest while he shuddered with harder and harder coughing.
“No!” He struggled with the tubing, trying to attach it to the mask. Tears slipped down his cheeks as he coughed.
“Dad. Let me help you.” Patrick reached out to take the mask from his father, but Leo pushed his hand aside. The coughing subsided a little and Leo wiped his eyes with his sleeve.
“I said I could do it,” he gasped. “I’m no invalid yet.” His voice was so weak and thready that he sounded just like the invalid he claimed not to be.
Mary and Patrick sat down on the sofa and watched Leo fiddle for a while. He finally stopped working and glared at Mary. “Show’s over. I’m not going to drop dead here and now.” Mary burst into tears and ran from the room, Patrick glaring at his father.
“Why take it out on her?” Patrick asked. He rushed after his mother. Leo could hear the soft soothing sounds of Patrick comforting his mother in the kitchen. He’s a better man than I am, thought Leo.
On the chair next to the tank, he thought, now what? I can’t go around making her cry. But I am not helpless. Yet... he refused to let the idea of his demise become an admission that he would die from his emphysema. No. He thought. I can’t die. Not now.
Mary came in, carrying a tray with his tea and bread on it. Her face was smiling, her eyes red from crying. She pretended that nothing was wrong, as usual. She set Leo’s BFD mug down on the end table near his reading half-glasses and Irish Echo newspaper. “Drink while it’s hot.” She stepped lightly back to the kitchen, avoiding Leo’s eyes.
Leo followed her quietly and slowly. He still hadn’t caught his breath fully from his last coughing fit. Patrick looked up from his tea and watched his father slide onto the chair, holding the edge of the table. “Dad. I am not trying to pry, but Ma and I have a right to know all of it.” He gripped his mother’s hand, waiting for Leo’s response.
“Look, I am not trying to keep anything from you, but you’ve got to look at things my way here. I am a lieutenant, a firefighter. All my life I have had to trust that my judgment would save people, not hurt them. I’ve told you everything that I’m sure of myself.” He was winded from his speech.
Mary sniffled and sipped at her tea. Patrick sat stiffly on the edge of his seat and cleared his throat. “Dad. You may have held the fate of those people in your hands, but you don’t have that power here. We’re a family. You have to consider what we want too. Don’t we count?” Mary put her hand on her son’s shoulder.
“Don’t Patrick. Your father is right. It’s his life and…whatever we want, it’s his life.” She rose as she spoke and brought her cup to the sink, picking up the wooden spoon from the spoon rest to give the sauce a stir. Wiping her hands on a dishtowel, she left the room.
“See what you did!” Leo accused Patrick with his shaking finger.
“ME? You’re the one who makes her think that you’re dying on the spot and then won’t let her help you.”
“What do you know about it anyway?”
“I see you pushing her away.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.” Leo was baffled. Mary was everything to him, not just a wife, but his entire life. He couldn’t live without her. What did Patrick know of that?
“I know what I see. You don’t let her love you in her way. Do you even let her give you a tissue? No, the big man is going to take care of himself. Don’t you see, she loves by helping you. Just like she sends me home with food and coupons for groceries. And you just brush her off!” Patrick got up, kicking the chair back with his legs.” You think your way is the only way. Well, it made you a good leader during fires, but makes you impossible to live with.” Patrick took the spaghetti pot out of the cabinet and filled it with hot water.
Leo watched for a few seconds, trying to force back the threatening tears. Where does he get this understanding of us? This is not my son, he thought. This is Mary’s boy through and through.
Leo shuffled into the living room, and sank into his leather chair. He calmly picked up the mask and tubing and fished inside the bag for the connectors. “Mary, have you seen my glasses?”
Mary crossed the room to the end table beside Leo and passed him his glasses. “Here they are.” As she handed them to him, he took her hand and smiled at her.
Mary wrenched her hand free and went back to the couch and her newspaper.
Leo flipped stations with the tv remote until he came to The Flintstones. “I remember every day after school Pat used to watch this show. Sometimes when I was on night crew I’d watch with him before I went to work. I didn’t know they were still on.” Leo smiled broadly at his wife. “I guess this is like the good old days, Huh Mary? Waiting for dinner and watching TV.”
Leo began coughing again. Hacking. Straining. His eyes teared. His whole body shook and shivered as he struggled once again with his breathing. Patrick hurried in. Leo looked from one to the other as they stood watching, then handed the directions to his son, who set up the equipment in a rush. Mary stood aside watching, her hands moving at her side in helpless flutters. Leo motioned to her for a tissue while he sucked in cool air through the clear tubing.