Addie Voss’s Michael was the one with asthma, but she learned to share it with him. He wheezed and hacked and she complained about his clogged-up tubes like they were her own. Looking for relief, the two fled Illinois and headed for sunny Albuquerque, but the desert air gave Michael nosebleeds. In Redding and Denver, it was the heat or the altitude. That had been the go-around since they got married in the early ‘90s, nomading it here and there, looking, hoping.
Now today, an ordinary Tuesday, Addie was waiting in confusion at San Francisco International for a plane back to Minneapolis, their latest city, where she had left Michael and their four kids a couple days earlier. For Michael, jobs were plentiful in Minnesota, even if breathing remained a chore. She guessed other things weren’t going to get better either now that the four kids were down to three.
“Coughing up his guts is bad enough,” Addie said to anyone listening over the waiting room chatter, “but nothing’s like this disease called life.”
“With what kind of ease?” a jovial older man asked as they finally found their places on the afternoon flight.
“Not ease,” Addie said clearly, noting how he cupped a hand behind his ear. “You know, dis-ease, same as discomfort, like fitting in these gawd-awful airline seats.”
The man waited patiently while she wedged herself down in the middle seat. Then he took his place by the aisle. Addie looked up distractedly and introduced herself.
“I’m Al,” he replied. “Old-timer. Retired guy.”
A young man with red hair was already crammed in the window seat, but he was limber enough to stretch his legs. “Richard,” he said. “From Rochester. Been visiting my girlfriend, in Vegas. On vacation.”
“I was just starting a vacation, too, my first ever,” Addie responded. “Here I am, forty-two and never had a week off.”
“Is that right?” Al asked. He was looking past Addie and addressing Richard. “That’s a college girl you were seeing in Vegas, was it?”
“No, a card dealer,” Richard answered with a smile. “She deals blackjack.”
“No kidding!” Addie replied. “That’s my line, too. I do housekeeping at a casino.”
“Right in the action, I bet,” Al said with an interested wink.
“Well, it’s really the casino hotel,” she admitted.
“Like I said, you seen it all?”
Yes, I seen it all, she reflected in silence. Like this guy who left me a hundred-dollar tip and then . . .. She paused in mid-thought.
“I can see you’re thinking it over,” Al said. “My question hit home, huh?”
Addie glanced at him, her emotions mixed. This stranger asked such impertinent questions, but they addressed some of her present anxieties. She was confused at the sudden journey back to the Midwest to begin with. Now she was expected to talk with people to boot. Still, it might do her good to have someone around and here she was with a fellow on each side of her.
“I’ll let you in on one,” she said thinking it wouldn’t hurt to let a brief tale slip out in public. “We had this guest, a hulking guy and a big talker, with a ten-gallon hat. He checked in one Friday night, gambled away the family farm, then killed hisself. I’m the one found him, bright and early on Sunday. ‘You done plenty of this walking into rooms and finding people with their brains blew out,’ my boss said. ‘Take some time off. Go visit your folks.’ And that’s what I was doing.”
“You were in Vegas, too,” Richard interrupted.
“No, Redding. California.”
Richard shrugged, while Al nodded knowingly.
“I lived in Redding once,” he explained.
“Yeah, me, too,” Addie said. “Not this time, though.”
That was then, she reflected, this time is now. Or was now. Now could be hard to define. Her bus had left Minneapolis on Friday morning and she’d ridden it till Monday afternoon. Hours of starts and stops and then weird people, who might have been bearable to know about, at some level, but taken together they only felt tawdry to her, some verging on illegal. That trip happened only yesterday, but it felt like a ball of compressed time fading into a distant past.
Nevertheless, she loosened up and told Al and Richard about a few incidents. Like the teenage girl from Oklahoma, who had made her way up north alone and boarded the bus in the Dakotas cradling a pink blanket with a pet squirrel she fed from a baby bottle. Then there was the drunk who pawed at the thirteen-year-old girl across the aisle from Addie while the mother slept. The girl squealed for the driver to intercede until Addie ran the guy off. People like that mixed in with the loads of ordinary folk quietly riding off toward the California coast.
“Worst of all, was the thumpety-thump-thump of bus tires on the potholes after a long icy winter,” she said. “The landscape was unchanging. Then we crossed the mountains, but it was night. I slept while feeling the bus climbing higher up and the curves getting ever sharper, like daggers in my ribs.”
Richard seemed to lose interest in her tale, but Al strained to follow along. First he thought she was talking about real daggers or knife fights on the bus, but gradually she felt her words sinking in with him.
“I see, like our plane ascending,” Al added. “I thought myself that was an uncomfortable, stabbing sensation on takeoff.”
“Whatever,” Addie replied. “Like I said, it was my first time off from work. So missing my kids caused the pain. I sent our twelve, fourteen, and eighteen-year-olds off to visit my hubby’s folks and left Eddie with his dad. He’s only six. I forgot my cell, so no contact for two days plus. With nobody.”
“You weren’t concerned?” Al asked.
“I like riding the bus. Especially when we came down out of the mountains. For some reason we went to Monterey first. Then we changed buses northward again. The closer we get to Redding, the more I feel the heat growing.”
Addie squirmed in her seat as the coach got warmer.
“More desert-like. Soon as I get off the bus, everything’s strange. The wind hits me like a hot wave and nobody’s there. Finally, my father meets me and says my Eddie’s dead.”
“Just like that?” Richard asked her in surprise.
Addie nodded yes and leaned forward. Only slowly did she settle back in the middle seat.
“Something fell on him and killed him,” she replied, her calm restored.
“That’s too bad,” Al commented soothingly without cupping his hand. “Is he all right now?”
“No, he died,” she repeated.
Al leaned back and considered the ceiling, which made it unclear whether he couldn’t understand or still hadn’t heard her. By now the plane was into cruising mode, so Addie felt like she was being rocked to sleep. At her side Al went on gazing dreamily into the distance. Later the pilot announced they were passing over the Rockies and a storm was brewing, but probably not before Rapid City. Like most of the other passengers, she dozed off. Later she woke up thinking about the storm clouds.
“I like riding the bus. I like flying, too,” she said while glancing out the window. “But the plane costs more. My dad bought me this ticket for $600. They call it bereavement.”
“Believe me,” Al agreed, aroused from his daydreaming.
“I didn’t even have time to stop in Redding. Dad wanted me on the first best plane back east. I had to get up at four to get from my folks’ place to San Fran. Then I missed the early flight. They didn’t give me time to get across the airport. I’d never been there before, and they ought to give us time to walk all that way.”
Al nodded in agreement. Maybe he understood her, maybe not.
“They should give us more time,” Addie repeated. She brushed back her blond hair and dried a tear inching its way down her cheek. A few others followed. She took out a tissue and dabbed at them, a light motion matching the mid-afternoon quiet, which only the pilot finally broke. He announced he was veering south. Unless he did that, they’d surely collide with some strong turbulence.
“Collisions are no fun,” Addie said. “The time we moved from Denver, it was blizzardy and Russell, that’s my hubby’s brother, came from Tennessee to help drive us up north, a real cakewalk. Said they had scads of weather in Nashville. He was driving our VW van, not my hubby who was at the wheel of the other car. Russell got behind a couple semis on the Interstate and the snow was blowing so hard we couldn’t see around ‘em. Russell said if we stayed there we were goners for sure, froze tight in our tracks, so our only chance was the left lane, but the van was so loaded it stood still, kinda like suspended there. That’s when I knew we were gonna die, but that ol’ crate kept chuggin’ on till it inched past both those trucks.”
“You were saved!” Richard exclaimed.
“Yes, but when Russell pulled off later we skidded 360 degrees on glare ice into a ditch. We crawled out into the drifts, all of us okay, but it took us forever to get that van towed into town. Cold as blazes, I tell you.”
“So you got it repaired?” Richard asked.
“Yes. We hunkered down in a flophouse motel and waited near a week. Russell drove us all the way to Illinois after that, and finally turned north toward Minnesota. Me and my hubby ran away from Illinois years ago, and I keep thinking, here I am gonna cash in my chips back in that hole. You’re the truck driver, I tell Michael, why can’t you decide which road we take? I never trusted that Russell again.”
“That’s life, I figure, always a lesson to be learned,” Al added.
“Life’s one huge collision waiting to happen.” She bit the fingernails on her right hand nervously, pausing after each nail to study how close she had come to the quick. Realizing eventually her actions looked unsettled, she rested her hands on her lap. “It’s like, I could land this plane if I had to,” she continued, “and get us outa big storm trouble. My dad was a licensed pilot. He had a Piper Cub and showed me at home how they land and balance the planes. I wonder where we are?”
She peeked out and saw ominous clouds towering higher by the minute.
When she leaned back, Al craned his neck to see, too. “That’s South Dakota down below,” he explained.
“Oh, will we have to cross Illinois, too?” Addie asked.
“The Prairie State, your old stomping grounds?”
“Heavens no, not me, I only married this truck driver from there. That’s my Michael, except he gave up trucking for sheet metal work.”
“Well, anyway Minnesota’s next,” Al assured her. “Not Illinois.”
Addie closed her eyes and rocked back and forth. The flight attendants came around collecting throwaways, which caused her to start humming a chant-like melody to calm her nerves.
“I don’t like landings. Will we fly around the storm?” she asked.
“Yes,” Al answered, “but what we see now aren’t storm caps. Just rising clouds.”
Addie lifted her right hand and inspected her frayed fingertips. After that, she began biting the nails on her left hand.
“The real storm clouds are on the other side,” Al reassured her once more.
Relieved at that news, she stopped nibbling. She rummaged absentmindedly in her purse instead.
“I’m from Wisconsin,” she explained. “I grew up in southern California. But I notice how all the cheese they sell to tourists in California is made in Wisconsin.”
“What in the world?” Al asked.
“I think about my Eddie,” Addie confessed with a sob. “How hard it’ll be to walk in and him not there. He was starting to get asthma like my hubby. Lots of times I could tell where he was in the house by his cough. He had toys and clothes in his room. His puppy Emma slept with him.”
“What breed?” Richard asked.
“Oh, just a mutt. Black and white. Eddie wanted a boy dog but then we take him to the pound and there’s this furry mongrel staring up at him. Love at first sight, they had to have each other.”
Richard smiled at her words. In the silence that followed the plane started its long, slow glide toward the Twin Cities. The flight attendants came around again. They took Addie’s teary tissue and gave her new ones, and that led her to repeat the story of Eddie’s death or what she knew of it.
“What fell on him?” Al asked.
“They didn’t say. Just that Michael and Russell will be waiting for me at the airport. My father-in-law, too, he’s coming. I still remember living there in that Joliet in Illinois with him. On warm winter mornings the fog’d settle and the cold air from the melting snow mixed with it. The river canals were so oily they never froze, so this soupy slime rose up from the water and met the exhaust from all the trucks. The ducks stayed away. But not us. We slogged around in that mess till Michael got his asthma and Eddie, too.”
“Isn’t asthma inherited? I mean, genetic?” Al asked.
“That’s what the docs said, but I knew Michael when he was the picture of health. We met when he was with the Marines in Carolina and I was passing through. Before Desert Storm. Then he came home from Arabia and moved us to Joliet, his home town. He caught that junk.”
“So your kids have the asthma as well, all of you,” Al ventured.
Addie saw he was about to question her on the kids’ ages, just to double check, when the pilot interrupted and told the attendants to prepare for landing. Al nodded as they fastened their seat belts, and the coach lights dimmed.
“Anyway, asthma bonded us together, me and Michael,” Addie explained.
As the plane began circling, the pilot came on to explain they were holding in a line of incoming flights. Rain splattered against the coach windows.
“Will we have to fly through the clouds down there to land?” Addie asked.
“Yes,” Al answered. “We’ll beat the worst of them.”
“Misery loves company.” She started in loudly until she realized others than her seatmates could be listening. “Michael obsesses, thinks he’ll smother to death, so I comforted him all along by complaining, too. Then we had Eddie, the love of my life.”
As the plane landed, she peeked out at a slowly brightening late summer evening. Somewhere behind them a woman announced the landing on her cell. “Carousel four. Love you, honey.” Other passengers were sorting their gear.
Addie spoke up again. “I forgot it. My phone, I mean. I coulda called my baby.” She wanted to say something else, but she saw Richard wasn’t listening and suspected Al wouldn’t hear her over the ruckus.
The three of them were heading toward baggage claim before she began talking again, repeating herself about how great it was the pilot flew around Illinois, she couldn’t have stood Joliet another time. Not even inhalers helped you there.
At the top of the stairs leading down to baggage claim, she stopped and looked beseechingly at Al and Richard.
“We named him after me, you know.”
“How’s that?” Al asked.
“You know, like me and him. Addie and Eddie.”
“Oh, yes,” Al said with a comforting smile. “Eddie and Addie.”
With that, the two men took the escalator down. Addie lingered at the top.
Thankfully, she had no luggage, so she walked down the steps and past the carousels. Around her was the busy flow of passengers arriving and departing. She saw Al and Richard, baggage in hand, disappear among them.
When Michael emerged from the crowd, she hugged him till her father-in-law came forward, followed by Russell, wearing a Volunteers t-shirt. She embraced all three at once till they finally stepped back to study each other’s thoughts. The hardest part of all this is how we’ll ever pay Dad for my plane ticket, Addie was thinking, but all she said was, “Who’s been feeding Emma?”
Her men smiled sheepishly but didn’t answer. They started the trek out toward short term parking.
“Okay, let’s go home then,” Addie said under her breath and followed them. Along the way she counted on one hand what was waiting for her there. Three lonesome kids. One empty boy’s room. A hungry dog. Her idle cell phone. She wondered how she’d ever forget that she forgot it.
Roger McKnight is originally from downstate Illinois. He has degrees from Southern Illinois University and the University of Minnesota. He has lived and worked in Chicago, Sweden, and Puerto Rico. Currently he resides in Minnesota. He teaches English and Swedish. Roger’s years in Scandinavia showed him the value of nations respecting human rights and peaceful conflict resolution. In Puerto Rico he saw the dignity of Puerto Ricans on their home island before Hurricane Maria and the American government’s shameful neglect of the island. Roger often writes about persons struggling to keep a foothold in mainstream society. He’s published one book of creative non-fiction; a novel; and 12 pieces of short fiction in literary journals.