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NOXIOUS REMINISCENCE


NOXIOUS REMINISCENCE – TIMOTHY M. NASLUND – UNITED STATES


Out of a blurry windowpane, Milan Alexandre watched rain lightly fall onto the already saturated concrete. He watched the picturesque afternoon view of the town center darken from the weather’s effects. It had been raining all day. Milan let out a cough into a crumpled handkerchief he held in his left hand. Remnants of dried blood speckled one corner of the cloth from earlier, from violent convulsions of his chest that had woken him up from his afternoon nap. His cough had momentarily subsided to a raspy exhale, so he thought it wasn’t necessary to call for the doctor. Besides, his daughter should be arriving any minute now. That’s who he was waiting for, looking for outside of his window, to see her little black sedan pull up and out she climb, perhaps donning the wide brimmed hat she always wore when the weather was inclement as it was today.


Milan was once the chief natural resource overseer at the Hanks Institute of Refinery before his reluctant retirement. Before he held his managerial position, he worked as one of the floor engineers, constructing and alter servicing the oil refinery, laying most of the piping and construction to the large stack, billowing thick, white smoke from its top, off in the distance of the town. It resembled a large cigarette, he always thought, fit for a giant. He craved a normal sized one even though he had given them up five years ago. Milan absently smacked his chest where his shirt pocket used to house his pack of hand rolls, before his daughter and the doctor, in an effort to keep him alive long enough to perhaps see a grandchild be born, pleaded for him to stop.


Besides the cigarettes, the years of hard labor had taken a considerable toll on his health. His doctor had told him on several occasions to take it easy, whatever that meant; Milan apparently held a philosophical disagreement about the definition of “easy.” He had been bedridden for the past two days and while his back kept his movements strict and rigid while his coughs persuaded him to buckle over, he felt he needed to get out of bed or else he would die.


His hand was propped up on the window for support. A glass of water sat on the windowsill, one or two more sips left before he had to go into the kitchen to refill it. He was thirsty but did not want the exhaustion that would surely come from moving the mere two-rooms length to the fridge and instead thought it best to impatiently wait for his daughter to arrive before his thirst defeated him. He licked his lips, continuing to stare out into the rain.


The dreary sky was crowded with bloated clouds, their bellies gray – a reflection of the concrete street below – torpid and full of rain. It seemed to Milan it would rain for the rest of the night and maybe even into the morning. The clouds smothered the sun, ushering in night earlier than the day intended. Milan worried if his daughter would be coming at all, even though it was only ten minutes past the time she told him over the phone she would arrive.


Milan had always enjoyed days like this. In his adolescence, he would slice through inchoate puddles, the sleek, black bicycle tires blurred in the reflection of the fallen rain, his body soaked to his underwear and his mom, even at that age until her own untimely death from an unexpected aneurysm, as spry as ever he thought, reprimanding him about the dangers of pneumonia and being soaked to the bone (oh, what splendid horrors parents – his mother and even Milan himself with his children – used to threaten their children with whenever there was the slightest chance for something to go wrong). At the oil refinery he never minded working through small showers such as the one today or the ones he fondly remembered feverishly pedaling through and would revel in each droplet cooling him off from the day’s work, filling the air with dampness and an affectionate craving for his mother’s homemade baklava. The rain tapped against the kitchen window, as she refilled her morning pot of coffee, the cold rain fogging up the window’s edges, an invitation his mother took to grind up any walnuts or pistachios they had while she left the phyllo dough to thaw on the counter. What he would give now to have the strength to walk down his apartment stairs and feel the rain splatter against his weathered face, his once broad, now deflated shoulders, and feel once more the coolness of the rain, as the water soaked through his pores, soaking him to the bones, as his mother always threatened.


A black car pulled up to an empty parking spot in front of a standalone apartment building. Analise Alexandre sat watching the windshield wipers swipe away the drizzling rain at a pace much faster than the rain was falling. The car sat idle. Analise stared out at the droplets being cut to pieces by the pacing wiper blades.


It was always a chore to see her father in his current condition, she thought. A chore she felt was a prioritized importance, as her father, throughout her life, never swayed away from giving her anything he was capable of giving her, so it was one she didn’t mind as much as others pertaining to her life, but it was a chore, nonetheless.

Once a strong man, always a symbol for the strength she believed fostered familial vitality in her, was now frail, confined to a proximity close to his bed, death eminent, very soon. She was the last of her father’s children. Her two older brothers died in the war, and she was all her father had left. She looked down at her lap where her hands idly rested. She wore a black cardigan over a simple black blouse and black pants. Already dressed to mourn his inevitable death. Upon realizing her lapse in judgement when absentmindedly picking out her outfit for work this morning, tears welled up in her eyes and she did her best to fight their inclination for falling down her pale cheeks and the soft discolored bags under her eyelids.


For the last couple months, in order to recover from her father’s increasing medical expenses as well as keeping herself afloat, she showed up to work six days a week, sometimes forgoing even her one day off to come in and make any progress on the big project her team was working on, and hopefully, reaching its seemingly elusive denouement. And yet, despite the apparent effects of the lack of sleep, she still retained a prominent beauty, although when she let her mind wander back to more simpler times for her, especially with her father who loves to go down old, familiar roads of recollection, she remembers a more bright, vibrant face for her own. Now, wrinkles began to form at the edge of her eyes, the curls in her hair slackened, losing their spring, and her skin lost the sheen it once held in her youth. Nevertheless, even when she was remiss to believe, her beauty was still present.


She was engaged to a coworker, a fellow engineer. Roman Levy, her husband to be, had actually proposed to her over a month ago and within that time Analise had visited her father on multiple occasions, but never managed to bring up this intimate affair. Now, feeling guilty for keeping such information that she knew would only warm the heart of the old man upstairs, whom she saw innocuously peering out his window down at her, she turned the car off and grabbed her long-brimmed hat, adorned with a matching black ribbon tied around the base of the crown, sitting in the passenger side, and entered the rain, making for her father’s apartment entrance.


Upon seeing his daughter’s car arrive and the straw-colored hat with the familiar black sash first emerge from the car, Milan backed away from the window until he fell into a padded rocking chair sitting next to his bed. Both the back and the seat were cushioned with wool, stitched together on lovely, flower-patterned linen, by Analise’s mother. She died from what the doctors diagnosed as an incurable disease. The disease – Milan forgetting the long, intimidating name used to identify her sickness – was indeed curable, however, Milan and his wife possessed neither the funds nor were in the proximity of a more, well-equipped hospital, and thus, she was deemed incurable.


The rocking chair was swollen from years of soaking in the early morning’s moisture and creaked any time Milan leaned back slightly in the chair, but he found it impossible to throw out the old relic. His lower back surged with pain at the slightest forward movement of his upper body, so it felt good to lean back, rock in the chair, and so he focused on the harmonious effect the tapping of the falling rain had on the windowsill and the creak the old chair bellowed. He coughed into his handkerchief and reminded of the blood, thrusted it into his pocket as to not alarm his daughter.


She came in without knocking, as she always did and how he always told her to come in and not act like she was some stranger. She placed her hat on the console table near the door and after embracing her father, Milan stifling a cough while wincing to lean forward into her hug, assumed her position at the foot of her father’s bed while he fell back into his chair, the crescent feet of the chair creaking with every trip backward.


“How are you feeling?” Analise asked, as she always did.


“Fine, fine.”


He was still catching his breath, trying to match his exhales with the steady rock of his chair. Every breath he let out was accompanied by a soft wheeze, a pitiful cry from his lungs from all the times he relished the soothing taste of the tobacco smoke filling his chest; he was now paying the costs of the pain each drag lifted from him in his past. Now, at the denouement of his life, he was forced to atone for avoiding such pain, for he now understood pain to be unavoidable in all accounts.


“Rather drab day, isn’t it?” Analise said.


“I love days like these. Your mother and I … would always set a fire, prepare a pot of lentils or some pork stew or another … watch from that old, double-pane window the songbirds take advantage of those poor unearthed worms … lost their home –”


“Has Mrs. Granger been by?”


“Who?”

“Mrs. Granger.” Analise repeated. “The nice lady who lives across the hall. Has she stopped by at all?”


“Oh yes, she dropped off supper and helped me … change the sheets on the bed.”


Mrs. Granger was Milan’s neighbor across the hall. She was a little old woman, perhaps a little older than Milan (Analise never asked, and Milan never could remember), who took it upon herself to check in on Milan every so often to make sure he was eating and, as she always put it, not turning the apartment into a sty.


“She always makes a fuss of the clutter on the table … no matter how many times I tell her not to bother.” Milan pulled the handkerchief from his pocket to catch a fit of coughs he felt coming.


“It has gotten better, considerably.” Milan insisted, upon seeing the concerned look in his daughter’s stare. He began directing the questions to her, as he tucked away the handkerchief under his leg. He asked her about work, always intrigued and proud of his daughter’s accomplishments. She was an engineer just like him.


“What was it you told me the other day … the Institution … of something or other … of Restorative Technology, that’s it … They contacted you about something … What was it? …”


“It didn’t amount to much. Everything we found from the crashed satellite was unsalvageable.” She looked down into her lap. She didn’t want to tell him that it was months ago. “We’re working now on a radio signal.”


“What for?” Milan said, intrigued, sitting upright until his back fired warning shots for him not to move any more forward.


“To try and contact one of the sibling outposts. We aren’t sure if it’ll work, if we have a strong enough signal and frequency, but in theory, if their radio towers and satellites are still operational, they should pick up our signal.”


“How long will that take?”


“We’re not sure.” Analise said. She blushed at the usage of such a pronoun, reminding her of what prompted her to visit her father during the week. She was unsure how to announce it to him. She always found it difficult to talk to her father about personal matters. They could talk about work for hours on end, or any economic or political topic, both impassioned by the conversation, but the moment the conversation shifted to either of their personal life, specifically Milan with Analise’s mother and Analise regarding even a modicum of romance of her own, the two spoke in generalities, grasping hollow words and putting together coherent sentences always meaning close to nothing, followed by avoidance of eye contact until another subject was explored. But this time it was different for Analise. This time, she wasn’t sure how many more visits she would have left to tell him, how many more times eye contact could go avoided. So, taking advantage of a lull filled with nothing but the white noise from the persistent rain and the crying rocking chair, Analise spoke.


“I’m engaged, dad.”


“What?”


“Engaged, I’m engaged.” She unfolded her hands to hold up the ring that she was in his daughter’s stare. He began directing the questions to her, as he tucked away the handkerchief under his leg. He asked her about work, always intrigued and proud of his daughter’s accomplishments. She was an engineer just like him.


“What was it you told me the other day … the Institution … of something or other … of Restorative Technology, that’s it … They contacted you about something … What was it? …”


“It didn’t amount to much. Everything we found from the crashed satellite was unsalvageable.” She looked down into her lap. She didn’t want to tell him that it was months ago. “We’re working now on a radio signal.”


“What for?” Milan said, intrigued, sitting upright until his back fired warning shots for him not to move any more forward.


“To try and contact one of the sibling outposts. We aren’t sure if it’ll work, if we have a strong enough signal and frequency, but in theory, if their radio towers and satellites are still operational, they should pick up our signal.”


“How long will that take?”


“We’re not sure.” Analise said. She blushed at the usage of such a pronoun, reminding her of what prompted her to visit her father during the week. She was unsure how to announce it to him. She always found it difficult to talk to her father about personal matters. They could talk about work for hours on end, or any economic or political topic, both impassioned by the conversation, but the moment the conversation shifted to either of their personal life, specifically Milan with Analise’s mother and Analise regarding even a modicum of romance of her own, the two spoke in generalities, grasping hollow words and putting together coherent sentences always meaning close to nothing, followed by avoidance of eye contact until another subject was explored. But this time it was different for Analise. This time, she wasn’t sure how many more visits she would have left to tell him, how many more times eye contact could go avoided. So, taking advantage of a lull filled with nothing but the white noise from the persistent rain and the crying rocking chair, Analise spoke.


“I’m engaged, dad.”


“What?”


“Engaged, I’m engaged.” She unfolded her hands to hold up the ring that she was my umbrella outside the door?”


“What are you on about, dad?” Analise asked.


“I told you … I want to go for a walk.”


Outside the window Milan saw two yellow crested warblers chase one another around a light pole before darting up and landing on the drooping powerlines extending parallel to the street. They sat in the center of the shallow arching copper lines, their heads turned sideways toward Milan – their black dots for eyes piercing as they were enigmatic – before they flew off without warning, outside of Milan’s window-paned view. Outside of the brief flash of gold from the pair of birds, the rest of the world was dipped in a sepia tone. White and black cars sat idle, parked along the road. White blinds and shutters shrouded the lives of people living in the adjacent windows, not enticed by the prolong rain the way Milan was. The buildings were painted a similar gravel color as the street. Everything seemed drained of color – an outcome of age, Milan supposed. All the black was tinted with a tinge of green, while the white, lighter tones were blemished with a yellowish hue, the kind seen on worn photographs taken on bulky, polaroid cameras, or on the edges of the crown molding to a smoker’s residence. All this, Milan noted, doused by the setting sun’s final glow, a distant light cascading on the world, invoked noxious sentimentality for those peering out of windows looking for such things.


Milan’s abrupt terseness bothered Analise, and she was curious what had suddenly got into her father.


“Well?” Milan spoke.


“Well, what?”


“The umbrella, was it outside?”


Analise did recall the slim bucket outside holding a collapsed black umbrella, not bothered to be tied up, next to the front door.


“You’ll get sick if you go out in this rain.” Analise protested, but Milan ignored her words, or at least pretended to, and instead pensively stared out of his window to something unbeknownst to Analise. She stood up and stood just behind her father.


“See, it is still raining.” She spoke.


“To the bone … I know.” He said, and there was some more silence until he finally spoke again.


“Do you remember those hideous purple polka-dotted rain boots your mother had bought for you?”


“Yes, I remember, I was five.” Analise said, hoping he wouldn’t get lost in another story he had told a million times before.


“And it didn’t rain again for the rest of the month … And once it finally did and you started playing … in the puddles at the end of the driveway … I think your mother and I were cooking a roast that morning … I had my flannel on, I remember that much … a frog or some other scared you white … your mother had her hair up, that bandana tied with the bow resting on her crown … It must have been Spring … We were living in Fialta …” Milan’s cough interrupted him. “Where is my coat? Let’s go for that walk. You used to love going on walks when you were a little girl … you used to love swinging in between our arms … Do you remember the time we were heading … to I think the bookstore and –”


“Please don’t speak of the past so much, dad.” Analise said. “It’s depressing.”


Guilt flooded Analise’s face as she wished to take back her sincere interjection. It bothered her that he always felt it necessary to conjure memories of the past rather than keeping the conversation on something in the present. She looked at him, to gauge some sort of reaction, but he seemed neither perturbed nor saddened by the suggestion. Instead, he meekly spoke, the fragility in the old man’s voice apparent in the whispering way the words were heard.


“It’s all I have now. It’s all I have.”


The rain filled in the silence as the two stood, focusing on different raindrops before they crashed and joined the other pooling puddles. There would only be a few more minutes before another blink would bring upon the night. The soft amber glow from the light poles outside had already taken precaution, creating safeguarding domes amid the impending darkness. A maroon car drove past, breaking the monochromatic scene the rain, the setting sun, and the drabness of the city composed. Even though the window was closed, the smell of the rain filled Analise’s nostrils. The cool dampness smell of moisture engulfed her senses and sent a shiver down her spine, the kind of sensation one gets from hearing grave news or seeing an accident slowly happen in front of their eyes. She looked at her dad, who was coughing in his handkerchief again, hacking up what little life he still clung to.


“Let’s go for a walk.” He said once more. In response, Analise stepped away from the window, grabbed his coat suspended on a hook near the front door, and stood with its innards outward, inviting her father to put it on.


She tried helping him down the flight of stairs, much to the dismay of Milan who insisted he could walk himself down, clutching onto the handrail with both hands as he slowly lowered his foot down each succeeding step, careful not to tweak or bend his back in any way. Once they were finally outside, Milan opened the umbrella out toward the street and he and Analise crowded underneath as Milan lead the way up along the road, walking only god knew where. Unable to hold the umbrella sturdy, Analise finally took the responsibility of the umbrella from her father and held it above their heads, letting him focus solely on the surrounding rain and where he wanted to walk, their destination sparking a tinge of curiosity in her. Then, about ten meters from the apartment building, he stopped, and then shuffled out from under the umbrella and into the rain.


“I’ll be fine … I’ll be fine.” He repeated, motioning for Analise not to follow him with coverage, pushing her outstretched hand away.


He didn’t mind the rain, to feel the coldness envelop his body as the water immediately began to soak his clothes, his hair, his dried, old, and blotchy skin. He looked toward the heavens and winced at the water now falling upon his face.


He was never a religious man, never prayed to a god, even during the birth of his three children, the death of two of them, and the death of his wife, but in that moment, he felt, soaked to the bone, what he felt could only be described as rapturous. The sensation to cough that constantly lingered in his chest evaporated. The persistent pounding and rushing of blood to the occipital region of his skull gone. Even the pain in his back disappeared as every droplet hitting the concrete seem to disintegrate upon impact. And even though the sky was flooded with swollen clouds and the sun was now beyond the horizon, he thought he could feel on his face the warmth, the breath of life, kissing him, reminding him of the pleasures he had comprised over so many years, and due to his ever-present mortality, all of the memories that flashed before him, seen in the reflection of every falling droplet of rain, held an even greater potency than they ever had before. The world around him blurred. Analise’s mouth formed words, but the words were unintelligible. He thought this was it, he was to die right here.


The next series of moments came to him in snapshots. Stills of his life captured in moments with seconds lost in between. He didn’t lose consciousness, but was detached from his body, floating above his physical self, his spirit and mind clinging onto the ephemeral moment of bliss while his body was ushered up the stairs and into his apartment by his daughter. He watched, floating above himself, his daughter change him out of his drenched clothes, wrap him in a towel before putting on his nightwear. She lit the fireplace and plugged in an electrical heater Milan had lying beside his bed. He saw himself, shivering uncontrollably, his transparent paper skin dyed blue. He sat in bed, a blank stare forward – a glint shining in his iris leftover from the rain’s benediction. He saw the tears in his daughter’s face and was eventually pulled back down into his body by a jerking cough, the pain residing in his back overcoming the numbness he was enveloped by.


“I’m going to have to call the doctor.” He could finally hear Analise say.


“Don’t.” Milan said, the solemn word startling Analise before she composed herself to further reprimand her father, now that she knew he was conscious.


“– I sure hope you enjoyed whatever the hell that was. What were you even thinking?”


Milan felt sorry for causing her so much worry, but at the same time, he wanted to tell his daughter how she sounded so much like her grandmother.


In bed, underneath the covers he was sweating, yet still cold to the touch. She stood next to him on the side of the bed opposite of the electric heater. She was sweating herself but didn’t seem to mind. She was still going on, her voice rising as his commiseration mutually grew. He reached out and grabbed her hand and it was only then did she realize he was also crying.


She embraced him, shared in his tears, and without words both shared a moment of pity for the forces of nature beyond either of their control. First gradually, then abruptly, a change of tone happened in Milan’s sobs. The shimmer now radiated again in his reddened eyes, and he looked at his daughter, catching her wet eyes, now wiping away the tears that streaked down her own face, perplexed at her father’s capricious behavior. He wanted to tell her how proud he was of her, how she reminded him of her grandmother once more, but could not stop crying. After composing themselves, Analise insisted she’d have the doctor stop by and proceeded to pick up the phone.


“I’m fine, please … I’ll be fine … I’ll be fine.”


“Yes, you might be sick.” Analise began but saved the rest of her protests that she knew would go in vain. She put the telephone down and promised him she would return soon, in three days, on Saturday morning, and if he wasn’t feeling any better, she would call for the doctor without pause.


“I mean it, the last thing you want is to catch a cold or something worse.” The last two words trailing off, Analise not wanting to imagine what indeed she could have meant. She shook such dreadful thoughts away as she embraced her father once more, this time to say goodbye.


“If you can, my Ana, please … whenever you come by again, bring me some soup, I have been craving that for weeks now … Bone marrow … something hearty … Do you recall when we bought that bulldog of a pig from that swine of a man who was passing through town … I think he said he was from Gaya … Such a lovely city, do you remember when we visited for the President’s parade … You wanted to sit on my shoulders to watch the soldiers march … Melvin was still alive then … Oh, and that pig … How I couldn’t bear to kill it because of how fond you were of it … We sold it to someone … on the other side of town, I recall … I think it was back in August …”


“Dad. I have to go.” Analise said.


“Yes, yes, don’t let me keep you too long …”


Before leaving Analise pulled the electric heater closer to her father and threw another log into the firepit before closing the door behind her. Milan reached over and turned the heater down slightly. It felt good to be surrounded by the heat, underneath his thick comforter, in the warm dry clothes he was now in. He looked toward the window, the rain still splattering on the windowsill. He felt he had to cough but didn’t want to sit up and instead hoped the sensation would pass. He closed his eyes and tried visualizing being outside in the rain once more. The feeling of his body going numb to the cold rain, the weightlessness that overcame him as he became drenched in the falling heavens. It was then that he realized that it was not the rain that made any sound, but rather the crying of the ground.

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