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  • Writer's pictureMarie Smysor Watson

It's Good for the Lungs

Jonny’s ears were covered well - too well, she would acknowledge later - and so she didn’t hear him approaching at all. She had her old black hat (the one that her sister had knitted her when she was still in college) pulled tightly down over her head, flattening every bit of her thinning hair. She also had the hood of her winter coat puffy and warm (if not very fashionable) pulled up over the hat and the drawstring drawn tight. She thought she was keeping herself warm and safe from the biting February wind. Really she was only making herself a target. She understood this, but only after.

The knife was long and thin, but very sharp, like the knife that her father used to use to filet catfish they caught on the Illinois (but that was years ago), and so it had been able to slice easily through her coat and sweater and long sleeve t-shirt (all bought from the Goodwill, so no real loss there). From there it pierced her skin, meeting little resistance as it deftly avoided her ribs, finding the sweet spot in between them and puncturing her lung. The young man who did it, who stabbed her, pushed it in and out in a matter of seconds.

There was a feeling of a small fire, as if Jonny had pulled a muscle, but also a strange warm and liquidy feeling. She made a sound that came out like Ooof! and tripped over her own feet, dragging them a little as she hunched over, her arms coming up reflexively to wrap around her middle. From this position, she saw only a pair of scuffed black motorcycle boots covered partially by jeans with a dirty hem. She saw nothing above the knees as he walked past (it was only later that she learned it was, indeed, a he – Jeremiah Jefferson Herrick, 27, who was suffering from a schizophrenic episode in which he believed that Jonny was his dead aunt Marlie who had once slapped him for rubbing her stockinged legs with his feet one too many times under the table at the family Christmas when he was nine. This, among other things).

Jonny knew then that something was really wrong, because her breathing changed, going from short robust intakes of breath – she had been walking for at least two and a half miles at a good clip because it was good for the lungs – to a slow and wheezy sort of breathing that made her feel half-underwater.

She heard dim voices and saw more feet (three pairs, she thought, but she was seeing double at this point). A pair of black hiking boots with pink laces. A pair of ratty running shoes with frayed toes. A yellow pair of rainboots. They danced around the edges, keeping time with their own frenetic rhythm. She heard their remote voices, shaky with fear, but she herself was not afraid. She leaned down, touching her forehead against the ground, as in prayer. The gravel that edged the asphalt was smooth and cold and pressed into her forehead gently, smoothing out the creases and rough edges of her worry. The yellow rainboots waltzed out of the edge of her vision, like merry sundrops scattering to the shadows.

Jonny didn’t die. She didn’t even come close to dying. Sure, being stabbed was shocking, and certainly not what anyone would consider a good time, especially because it was unprovoked (Mr. Herrick was picked up minutes later, knife still in hand, thanks to the people that were attached to the shoes who had witnessed the attack) and she had only been thinking right then that she might go visit her sister in South Dakota this summer, if she could get the time off from work, and had not been thinking that this very moment might be her last. No one, except depressed people, though about such things; Jonny knew that. Still, there was some surprise that the hospital staff wasn’t a little more shocked about her injuries. Especially the collapsed lung.

Lungs are our most temperamental organs. They collapse all the time, Jonny’s nurse said breezily as she adjusted Johnnie’s IV line. She made it sound as if a toddler was in control of her most basic bodily reflex.

Jonny felt a little deflated from this, seeing as how nothing like this had ever happened to her. She was supremely healthy and had never had any children and so had never spent the night in a hospital, not even when she herself was born. She had been born at home, her teenage mother having never told her parents that she was even pregnant. (Jonny’s mother had her in secret, giving birth under the cover of night. She did not even cry out while she was delivering her, upstairs and alone, in her drafty farmhouse bed, she told Johnnie with something akin to pride. It was Johnnie herself that blew the cover, screaming like a siren as soon as she made her appearance. This was dramatic, of course, much like being stabbed by a complete stranger, and highly unusual too, but Jonny didn’t remember a bit of it so didn’t really consider the story her own).

The man that came into her room the morning after wasn’t a doctor. Jonny was sure of that. The doctor (the surgeon who had stitched up the stab wound) had already made his rounds in the weary early morning light. He had been kind but brisk, as if he sewed up knife wounds on fifty-two-year-old women every day. For all that Jonny knew, maybe he did.

This other man ( this man who was not the doctor) was wearing a light blue polo shirt with the hospital’s logo stitched onto the chest pocket. He was older (older than Jonny anyway) and there was a familiar look on his face. She had always been wary of familiar people.

“Hi, I’m Cal. I’m the respiratory therapist.” He smiled. His front tooth was chipped, making his smile rather lopsided. His voice was soft, like new bread would be if it could speak. Jonny almost laughed out loud at this ridiculous association her brain made (she chalked it up to the painkillers).

“Do you know what a respiratory therapist does?” Jonny shook her head like a little kid and pulled her blanket up closer to her throat.

“I help you get your lungs on the right track. After any surgery, you need a little help getting your lungs back to full capacity.” He sat down, without asking, on the edge of her bed. He showed her the contraption he pulled out of his bag. It looked like a big beaker on a stand with a mouthpiece protruding from the front. There were numbers and lines printed on it and a thick white line at the top. He set it up on her table and then squared his body towards her. His eyes pulled down at the corners, giving him a melancholy sort of look.

“Don’t you remember me, Jonny?” he sighed. Something akin to fear blossomed in Jonny’s stomach then, radiating out towards her damaged lung and up her spine towards her somewhat jowly and tired face. His face softened as she shook her head a little too vigorously.

“I’m Calvin Devenney. Cal.” Her face was blank. “Jimmy Devenney was my little brother.” He said was as if it was just another part of the sentence, instead of the before/after marker of his whole life's history.

“Jimmy,” she said, loosening her grip on the blanket. It settled limply against her spare chest.

Jimmy Devenney. They had been best friends in the fourth grade. Jimmy and Jonny. He didn’t care that she was a girl (not yet, and given what happened, he never would) and she didn’t mind so much that he was a boy. They played together almost every day after school, wading with bare, splayed feet in the cool creek that bisected the Devenney farm, or hiding in the bushes that lined Jonny’s yard, lying in wait for her little sister, Carla, or roaming anywhere on the acreage in between.

“Jimmy.” The small puncture on her back started to throb lightly. It was not an entirely unpleasant feeling. Cal was just a shadow in her memory, a mass that came and went; nowhere did she have a distinct recollection of him. He was much older than her and Jimmy (Nine years? Ten?) and made little impact on either of their lives then.

“Yes, it was a long time ago,” Cal said, his face unreadable. “Now, I need you to take a good breath, and then blow through this mouthpiece. The thick white line at the top is our goal.” He tapped one square finger against the hard plastic.

She and Jimmy used to race for fun, using the dying elm tree at the border of the Conner’s yard – the next to last house that was considered still “in town” – as the starting point. They ran for at least a half-mile, their whippet thin bodies kicking up dust behind them, straining against the limits of their half-formed lungs.

Keeping her eyes on Cal, she blew weakly into the device. Her breath only made the floating ball inside the tube raise an inch or so before it settled back into place. She dropped her eyes, ashamed.

“Don’t worry, it’s a good first try.” He patted her shoulder. His hand was cool and dry through the thin fabric of the hospital gown.

One day, Jimmy was not waiting for her after school, to walk the almost mile home with her, their bags slapping off of their hips and flat behinds as they ran and jumped and shouted their ways home, their lungs and legs and arms pumping from the joy of being let loose. Just like that, Jimmy was gone and there was nothing left behind to keep his place, not even his backpack. Nothing was ever found. Not a jawbone, not a scrap of paper, not even a whisper, a breath, to tell Jonny – or his parents or the police detectives or even Calvin – where he had gotten himself to.

“Now breathe deep,” Cal said, filling up his own lungs, so that the polo shirt stretched tight against his solid chest. Jonny had a strong impulse to lay her palm flat on the front of his shirt so that she might feel the effortless expansion and contraction.

She blew again. The same result. Maybe a little better but she couldn’t be sure.

“I was stabbed.” She didn’t want him to think she had done something wrong. He nodded, his face blank.

“Again,” he said, softly. She blew out. The floating ball inside the tube raised halfway this time.

“Jimmy.” Maybe there was something she could tell Cal now. There was a man with a green coat/there was a blue car/there was something odd about that shadow near the Conner’s dying elm tree/oh, yes, I’m absolutely sure of it. Something that would make some sense of the why and how of Jimmy’s absence these past forty odd years.

But she would be wasting dear breath. She had nothing to say to Jimmy’s brother whom her own mind could not even place squarely in memory.

(She would not tell Calvin Devenney that she may have seen something down in the basement of Smithfield Elementary School after visiting the bathroom – this was a few days after Jimmy went away. She had glanced over into the boiler room where the sliding door was always ajar; they could not risk a child becoming stuck inside there because the door was entirely too heavy to move. Peering out from behind the enormous boiler that provided the entire three story school with heat was a scrap of a face, one that might have resembled Jimmy’s. Her breath caught hard when she saw it, that thin half-face that could have belonged to her friend, but she didn’t investigate any further. She ran for the stairs, skipping two at a time although she had been warned time and time again not to by her teacher. But there was no one there to stop her and so she ran like a terrified colt up those canted stairs, not once glancing behind her, back to her classroom where the teacher was softly talking about the difference between an interrogative and a declarative sentence. Jonny sat down, breathless, and spent the rest of the afternoon casting Jimmy out of her memory. She never looked into the boiler room again, keeping her eyes trained straight in front of her as she walked and, in this way, kept moving forward in an unbreakable line).

Cal leaned toward her.

“Now breathe in deep and blow – give it one last shot,” Cal said, his droopy eyes sad and shiny. He was close enough she could smell Chapstick (the original kind in the black and white tube, the kind that Jimmy had always worn too).

Jonny did her best, took the deepest breath that she could with her sorry lung and blew.

She almost, almost made it up to the white line this time. Almost.

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